The proportion of academic staff over 66 years old has risen from 1.9 percent to 3.4 percent in the UK since 2011 when “default” compulsory retirement across all sectors was abolished. The latest UK statistics suggest that 1,475 academics over the age of 66 were working full-time last year compared to just 400 in 2011. On the other hand, some UK universities, including the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge, have recently introduced rules that require academic staff to retire at the age of 67. The new rule employed by these universities, called an “employer justified retirement age,” leaves Oxford currently fighting a number of age discrimination claims.
Among a number of reasons, a desire from some to participate in science for longer could be responsible for later retirement among academics, with possible implications for the younger generation. While elderly scholars staying in academia for longer may have a negative effect on employment or promotion opportunities for the younger generation, their experience, advice, and mentoring may offer a lot of benefits for their scientific communities.
In May 2018, the Global Young Academy, an outstanding group of young scientists representing a range of disciplines from around the world, held its 8th annual conference in Thailand. The theme of the meeting was “Forever Young? Sustainable and Healthy Longevity through Science and Technology.” One of the topics that participants discussed in relation to later retirement ages was whether or not ageism within the scientific community is on the rise. The phenomenon of forced retirement in academia was perceived as a form of ageism and as a hindrance to diversity in science. However, without relevant further regulation, the later retirement of elderly scientists can potentially have a negative effect on the careers of early stage researchers.
As scientists begin to retire later, it may become increasingly difficult for young scientists to compete with older peers as individual metrics of science are very often age-dependent, and funding is awarded on the basis of the merit that is often associated with a longer career (for example, the number of publications, citations, graduate students, previously awarded grants, etc.).
Furthermore, if elderly scientists are hesitant to step down from leadership roles, their younger counterparts will not have an opportunity to take up the responsibility associated with seniority, and this will affect their promotion opportunities.
Taking the above concerns of younger researchers into account, the participants of the Global Young Academy forum proposed the following in order to counteract potential ageism associated with forced retirement in science:
- When considering the retirement age of scientists, a fair balance between the interests of all generations in science should be taken into account. Elderly scholars may still provide a valuable contribution in new roles, offering their experience, advice, and mentoring rather than competing in mainstream academia. Scientists who wish to retire later should be supported to participate in academia in these new roles that will benefit their institutions. Local programs need to be developed to facilitate their transition between roles.
- When assessing a scientist for promotion or grants, scientific activity over the previous 5–10 year period should be taken into account irrespective of earlier achievements. This will promote fair competition and stimulate scientists to remain active rather than rely on their prior accomplishments.
- The disconnection of biological age from seniority and responsibility in science requires the development and implementation of a culture of intergenerational respect. This can be best achieved on a local level in smaller communities of science, such as research groups.
Gergely Toldi is a consultant neonatologist at Birmingham Women’s and Children’s Hospital, UK, and an honorary research fellow at the University of Birmingham. Anna Harris is an assistant professor at Maastricht University, the Netherlands. Both are members of the Global Young Academy.