3 Reasons Why Higher Ed People Who Can Afford to Retire Keep Working

The Great Remain.

November 4, 2021

The press, including the higher ed press, is full of stories on the Great Resignation.

Many of our campuses are struggling with labor shortages, especially in student-facing roles. I’ve written about what I see as higher education’s invisible understaffing epidemic.

The flip side to the academic Great Resignation story might be the Great Remain.

There is some number of people who work in higher education who remain in their jobs, even though they have saved enough money to stop working.

We have no idea how many academic types (faculty and staff) are part of the Great Remain. As a social scientist, this lack of data drives me nuts. But I would hypothesize that within higher ed, the scale of the Great Remain dwarfs that of the Great Resignation.

Why do some people who work in higher ed who could live well without a paycheck continue to work? Are you one of these people? Have you met your targeted retirement savings, or perhaps have a partner who makes enough money for your household, and yet you stay in your higher ed job?

Here are my three guesses for the reasons behind the Great Remain:

No. 1: Mission

It is difficult to overstate the degree that most people who work at colleges and universities have internalized the belief in higher education as an engine of individual opportunity and social progress. For most of us, working in higher education is as much as calling as it is a job.

Don’t get me wrong -- higher ed people need paychecks. Everyone’s work should be recognized and rewarded. The caste orientation of our postsecondary system results in compensation that is unequal and unfair.

Most people in higher ed are paid far too little (most notably adjunct and contingent faculty, but large proportions of tenure-track faculty and staff). Some people in higher ed are paid too much.

What I am saying is that the work of higher education is primarily driven by internal motivation, not external reward. This is made clear by how many brilliant and capable people are willing to be paid so little to work for a college or a university.

No. 2: Identity

In academia, one’s job and one’s identity can easily become conflated. Many academic careers require years of education, sacrifice, patience, fortitude and resilience. Faculty and nonfaculty educators work amazingly long hours. We spend so much time doing our academic jobs that our academic jobs can become us.

The issue of identity is particularly relevant for faculty. When you are a professor, your peers are other professors in your discipline. When a professor says what she does, she usually says what she is: I am a sociologist. I am a historian. I am an economist.

Over the last few years, the idea of having a career in a discipline rather than solely an institution has extended to ranks of nonfaculty educators. We build strong networks and often collaborate with nonfaculty peers at other institutions.

When your identity and job become integrated, you are less likely to leave that job. It is hard for some of us to imagine who we would be without a connection to our academic roles.

No. 3: Institutional Rigidity

One idea that I hope I’m making clear is that, for the most part, it is a very good thing for higher ed people to stay. We lose decades of institutional knowledge and hard-earned wisdom when our best colleagues retire.

What is also clear to me is that some of the best people in higher education would like to have a more balanced life. They would like to spend more time with family and on non-higher-ed-related pursuits. But they still have so much to give to their institutions, their students and their colleagues.

We need to find ways that both faculty and staff with decades of experience, knowledge and expertise can find ways to transition to different types of academic roles. Colleges and universities should be more open to creating positions that are flexible by time commitment and geography.

Work, and especially work in higher education, should not be a binary proposition. Either working or not working. There should be room for faculty and staff to calibrate their contributions to their own goals, constraints and desires.

Offering more options for part-time, remote or concentrated work (say, six months of the year) will help retain our best faculty and staff while also providing these colleagues with the flexibility to pursue other goals.

Greater institutional flexibility will also enable those lucky few who have saved enough money to retire to downshift gradually. There should be institutional structures that allow those in higher education to move into retirement down a ramp, rather than over a cliff.

Are you one of those people who continue to work in higher ed, even though you can afford to retire?

What keeps you as part of the Great Remain?

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Joshua Kim

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