December 30, 2008

Selfish Boomers Marching Toward Retirement... or Whatever They Want to Do, Darn It!

Justin Katz

It's difficult to comprehend why society would create lucrative positions known as "philosophy professors" if the people who fill them (at Ivy League schools, no less) are incapable of reasoning more sharply than this:

The article tells alumni that Ruthellen Williams is a remarkable teacher. Her classes are "packed, every term," and her "career holds many decorations, including top teaching awards, and many letters from students expressing her impact on their lives." She loves teaching and loves her students. "Nevertheless, Williams says, it's time to take her leave." Thirty-seven and newly married to a prosperous surgeon, she is resigning her professorship to free up a post for men who have families to support. "If I hold onto my post, they can't have a post, not this one," she says. ...

Of course, the entire scenario seems preposterous. Colleges and universities don't treat women this way, do they?

That's right; they don't. They treat old people this way. The article about 37-year-old Ruthellen Williams is imaginary. It is based on a recent real article about Ralph Williams, a 67-year-old professor at the University of Michigan. All the passages I have quoted appear in that article, except that I have substituted "her" for "his." The buyout for newly married women faculty is also imaginary. It is based on the real practice of giving elderly professors financial incentives to retire.

How is it even possible for somebody who, like Felicia Nimue Ackerman, author of the above, has made a career studying human thought not to see the significant category differences between her analogs? To modify the saying, perhaps it takes a Ph.D. actually to believe that all identity-isms are interchangeable. She goes on in like vein:

"When elderly professors hold onto their jobs, there are fewer jobs for young faculty." But when women and minorities hold onto their jobs, there are fewer jobs for white male faculty. Does this mean that women and minorities should resign? Obviously, the departure of some people can increase job opportunities for others. Why single out elderly professors as expendable?

Nobody should force retirement on folks who cannot afford whatever decrease in income would follow, but it says something about our culture — or, specifically, a certain generation within our culture — that even old age looks likely to fall prey to the cult of "I, me, mine." The elderly should remain as active as they're able, and seek to contribute to society in sundry ways. But especially as medical technology elongates their lives, they ought to hold on to the principle that giving subsequent generations the opportunity to make their way is incumbent upon us all.