Let’s talk about something that makes us uneasy. Retirement.
To raise the question is almost automatically to send each hearer into a private zone of calculation. Prisoner’s dilemma, self-constructed. For if I signal that I am ready to think about retirement, I am virtually abdicating my role in an institution, and I’m embarking on some risky financial and other calculations for which I’m perhaps not entirely prepared– so of course I don’t feel like making public my thoughts on the matter. (And I’m not, here: for the aficionados of the use/mention distinction, I am talking about what it would mean to talk about retiring, not talking about it.)
Another thing that makes it hard to talk about retirement is the awareness that when we go, the place we occupied is likely to go too. All right, if the Shakespearean on your campus departs, there will have to be another Shakespearean to step up into the role. But the less popular your field, or the more individual and experimental your way of doing scholarship, the less likely it is that your career will be prologue to another person’s comparable career. For people who spend a lot of time in the future (planning classes, writing books that somebody someday is supposed to read, wondering where the discipline is going), this is painful to contemplate, and I suspect that some of us who are old enough and wealthy enough to retire without disadvantage stay on because that’s the only guarantee that Etruscan philology or whatever will go on being taught.
Conversely, one of the powerful encouragements to pass the baton is the idea that somebody will be there to pick it up. And that idea is poorly supported just now. (I know why; you don’t have to tell me.)
Watching my own students throw themselves against the implacably locked door of the job market year after year, I wonder whether a collective agreement among senior faculty to move on, conditioned on an understanding that something tantamount to “replacement” will occur thereafter, wouldn’t moderate some of the pain and frustration. But that’s asking for the economically impossible: a future engagement on the part of a disaggregated (and internally competitive) group of employers to do something on behalf of people who, by the act of asking for this concession, are giving up whatever leverage they had. So we’re left with short-term calculations and actuarial endpoints.