Thursday, September 1, 2011

Ageism

An anonymous Smoker writes:

I am a 49-year-old philosopher who has recently successfully defended his PhD at a Western European (non-UK) philosophy department.

My reading committee agreed that the PhD was excellent, worthy to be published as a book. I have a strong publication record of some 15 papers in good general and specialist journals, including PhilStudies, Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism, Biology & Philosophy, Dialectica, Synthese, and 6 more in edited book volumes. I am also an enthusiastic and effective teacher.
Yet I find now that I am being turned down for postdocs within my university and for postdocs organized by the national research foundation of my country, in favor of younger candidates whose publication record is at best equivalent to mine, or in many cases, inferior. Even a small travel grant that has a baseline chance of success of 80 % has been rejected, because the committee "have a preference for younger candidates" (a direct translation of their policy, which can be found online). I suspect that few departments would be willing to hire a 49-year-old in a tenure track position, but I am baffled as to why my age should play a role for positions that offer 3 or at most 6 years of postdoc experience (these positions cannot be turned into a TT position and cannot be extended).

Why is ageism still an accepted form of bigotry? There is so much talk of letting people work longer to combat the costs associated with an aging population, but if you decide to go to college again in your late thirties (as I did) you are severely penalized, even if you are a successful PhD student.

Any thoughts from people in the same situation? How do you surmount ageism? How do you deal with it in application materials?


What say you, Smokers?

--Mr. Zero

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

That's very frustrating!

In the US, "young" is often used to mean "early-career" rather than to refer to a particular age. So, I believe that for the Young Epistemologist Prize, the Young Metaphysician Prize, and the Young Ethicist Prize , the eligibility is a matter of years since the PhD, not age.

If I saw something that said that "younger scholars" were preferred, I'd assume they meant "early career". It's very disheartening to think that actual age is being taken into account.

Anonymous said...

I saw this bias against older PhDs repeatedly in searches in my own department over many years. One explanation was that my colleagues preferred candidates who were up-to-date on the latest philosophical developments (which they presumably have because they have recently been affiliated with a doctoral department as a student).

Another explanation is the suspicion that there is something "wrong" with older candidates and/or people more removed from their PhDs if they haven't landed a TT job by now. I find that especially infuriating, given that we all know how miserable the job market has been since the 1970s.

Another source of bias: the fear that candidates in their 50s just want to teach long enough for a pension and retiree health benefits. Job-hopping by super-talented junior people is actually more of a problem, but that's yet another irrational bias.

I have no magic solutions, other than to think very broadly and creatively in seeking work and to maintain the best evidence you can in publications that you, too, are "up-to-date." You also need to show that you're current in the classroom, even if that means taking some part-time work just to have continuity in your CV.

Anonymous said...

I think Anon 12:03's distinction between career-age and sheer age is crucial. I have not myself seen much sheer ageism, but I've seen lots of career-ageism. Anon 12:30 appears to be talking mostly about career-ageism, which has a different motivation. I was myself about to turn 40 when I got my PhD, and I couldn't detect any sheer ageism in my (entirely North American) market experiences. I guess I'd be the last to know, but at each stage I did as well as or better than younger members of my career-age cohort. And on several hiring committees I've seen no sheer ageism whatsoever. A fifty-year-old junior hire is nonetheless going to be a colleague for 20 years, and I doubt many departments are planning farther into the future than that!

Anonymous said...

it sounds more like anti-aesthetic-ism!

amirite?!

Anonymous said...

The original poster noted that he received his degree from a European university. This makes a difference. Many postdocs in Germany, for example (this is the only European country I have experience with) will state quite explicitly in the application instructions that candidates must be under 32, or under 35, or something. It wouldn't surprise me if the ones that don't officially have such restrictions still engage in a lot of informal discrimination.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of asking a dumb question, how do they know your age? Are you getting these rejections after interviews?

Anonymous said...

7:45, I always assumed that the date of BA (BS) degree gives a sense of applicant's age.

Anonymous said...

9:11 - from the original post: "if you decide to go to college again in your late thirties"

I read this this as pursuing a BA in his late 30s. Which would likely not raise any red flags for age if the PhD is earned roughly 10 years after the start of the BA. But I may be mistaken.

Elizabeth said...

Re: the "how do they know?" question:

In many European countries (including Germany), it's customary to put age on one's CV. Along with -- seriously -- marital and parenting status. I find it horrifying, particularly as a female academic, but I'm not sure whether feminist German academics do as well.

Anonymous said...

My impression is that there is much less ageism of this sort in North America. I served on a TT search committee recently. While we might have been mildly surprised if one of our top candidates with a fresh PhD had turned out to be in her/his late 40s, I don't think it would have affected the outcome of the search.

I wouldn't worry about the possibility of retirement in a few years, and I don't think the rest of the committee would either. We have colleagues in their late 60s who are still going strong, and in any event it's not our problem if someone collects a pension from the university. We have a few retirements coming up, and I actually think it might be a plus to have a junior hire who's a little older so that it's not just teenagers left running the ship.

Anonymous said...

Outside of the USA, I do tend to encounter more ageism, and bluntly expressed opinions that older scholars should "retire as a service to the profession." I have many criticisms of the USA, but at least our excessive individualism tends to work against the sense that older scholars are in the way of young ones.

So sorry to hear about your obstacles, 49-year-old. I don't know of any way to surmount such structural ageism. What you describe really frosts me.

Ben said...

In the UK age discrimination is illegal and post-docs that used to have age requirements are now phrased usually in terms of years since completing PhD (or in a few cases since starting PhD or finishing BA).

I don't have much experience of continental Europe, but I would have thought that age might be more of a problem, particularly if in a country where a habilitation is a requirement of tenure. Appointing someone at 49 who has still to do that would mean that they would be mid-50s before they were accepted as a fully qualified professor. And, while said individual may be better published/qualified than other (younger) recent PhDs, I suppose it's always tempting to compare them to others of their biological age with longer academic careers and more publications.

Anonymous said...

Ben, I wonder if 'age discrimination' means something different in the UK. UK universities have 'mandatory retirement age', which is illegal age discrimination in the US.

zombie said...

I have no experience with how things work in the UK or Continental Europe, but I'm no spring chicken, got my PhD 2 years ago, and did not find age to be an obstacle in getting interviews or in finding a position. But since age discrimination is illegal in the US and Canada (which doesn't mean it never happens, of course), perhaps scholars of a certain age would have somewhat better luck finding a TT job or post-doc in North America. I had a post-doc in Canada, and had colleagues from Europe working with me.

Ben said...

Re: 12:23.

I admit, I'm not really sure on the legal situation. One possibility is that age discrimination is only illegal in hiring (and not in retiring), though I don't think that can be the case. Perhaps mandatory retirement is deemed acceptable because it's a contractual condition: in effect, we're all on fixed term contracts in the UK, rather than tenure. But I wouldn't be surprised to see challenges to mandatory retirement in the near future.

Anonymous said...

Yes, every university that has a mandatory retirement age needs to be flagged, per APA discrimination guidelines.

Jared Mortenson said...

Wow, I just find all of this very enlightening. I just got my BA in philosophy and was searching the internet for information on jobs. Gets a bit frightning from what I am seeing. I'll be back to see what other information you all are willing to impart to me.

Anonymous said...

In Germany, there are actually age restrictions for tenured positions. If I am informed correctly, someone accepting a tenured position for the first time must be younger than a certain age (between 45 and 52, depending on the state). It has something to do with regulations for state employees, but apparently this might change at some point, because it seems to be in conflict with EU regulations, and maybe even with some other German anti-discrimination laws.

Anonymous said...

In the UK, the Default Retirement Age of 65 will have been phased out by law as of 1st October, 2011. Employers now need to "objectively justify" any mandatory retirement age policy in order to avoid age discrimination claims (in practice this means universities will no longer be able to force faculty members to retire at a particular age).