July 04, 2008

Baby Boomers in American Academia

After the American Century

Yesterday the New York Times ran a long story about the coming change in American academia, as a large cohort of teachers begins to retire. (See it at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/03/arts/03camp.html.) There recently have been similar stories about Norway and Denmark, and indeed for much of the Western world, as the huge number of teachers hired in the 1960s and early 1970s starts to move out of their offices. As one who saw this transformation up-close-and-personal, I want to add a few observations.

It is not exactly the "baby boomers" who are retiring, at least not yet, for they are mostly too young to afford it. The baby boom began in 1946, when one million more children were born than during 1945. This means that all of the boomers are 62 and under. Anyone in this group who is retiring now got a BA, MA, and Ph.D. as quickly as possible, working steadily from kindergarden on up, with no breaks. The first boomers graduated from college in 1968, and the first to get Ph.D.s emerged perhaps as early as 1972 or 1973, but many more starting in 1974. For those who served in Vietnam, were conscientious objectors or worked after college, add several more years. The people who are retiring this year at 62 would be from the very start of that generation, which includes all those between 50 and 62. Any American retiring who is over the age of 62 is not a "boomer" but comes from the smaller cohort of babies conceived during World War II. They were over-represented on faculties, while the huge cohorts born from 1946-1957 ran into the terrible job market of the recession that lasted from c. 1973 until the early 1980s.

Any academic who lived through the 1970s can tell you that this generation had a hard time. Those just before them - who got PhDs between 1965 and 1970, still experienced a booming job market for their services, and they got tenure relatively easily. By the time the boomers were emerging from graduate school, however, the job market was shrinking. I know, because I was one of the job seekers. More than half the PhDs from my particular year never got academic appointments at all, and even those who did get jobs often saw them disappear due to the slumping economy. They were excellent scholars and teachers who deserved better, and the selection process was by no means an illustration of "the survival of the fittest." When reading about all the baby boomers who are retiring, remember, then, that a huge number of PhDs from that generation never got into academia in the first place. This does not mean they did poorly elsewhere. In general, these clever people made more money than those of us lucky enough to get tenure and the low salaries of the university.

So what? Given the actual hiring that went on, the idea that thousands of student radicals moved from protest to paper grading is a bit suspect. Indeed, I knew many who became disillusioned with academia during the turbulent anti-Vietnam years, and never finished at all. Those who stayed in the libraries and kept writing were not the most radical, and even the most radical PhDs were not always hired. Colleges and universities were not seeking to employ fire-breathing Marxist intellectuals calling for revolution. In short, only a few people shifted from the barracades to the faculty club.

However, after a generation passed, faculty who had been around during the turbulent decade were hardly averse to claiming a radical past. I know several people who seldom marched or sat in or attended anti-war rallies back then, who now talk nostalgically about those days of political engagement. When a reporter turns up looking for the last hippies and revolutionaries packing up their offices, many are only too happy to oblige with stories.

Don't be taken in. I "saw the best minds of my generation destroyed" by the contradictions of that time. They were drafted and sent off to Vietnam, went to Canada to avoid the draft, got drawn into fringe movements that took them forever away from the universities, or threw themselves full-time into the anti-war movement. The boomers who will retire from academic during the next 15 years were not the most radical. Rather, they had the perseverance to write their PhDs during that distracting time. They did so even though the job market was terrible, and they often spent years in short-term or part-time positions before landing in a tenured position. The few who succeeded, did so against great odds, through hard work and a bit of luck. Their story is not the one in the New York Times, which wants to paint a picture of retiring fire-breathing radicals being replaced by young moderates.

The new academics emerging now are not moderate compared to those actually hired in 1974. In fact, in many areas they probably have views that are at least as radical. The Times is right that they have not been embroiled in political struggles in the same way, but their dislike of George W. Bush is just as intense as ours was for Richard Nixon c. 1972.