How Baby Boomers Who Don't Retire Are Affecting Education and the Economy

04/02/2015 12:54 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015

I smiled when I saw a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled "Retire Already!" The article pointed out that many professors are remaining in teaching positions well into their 70s and, in some cases, don't plan on setting a specific retirement date. The topic of pushing off retirement first cropped up in the 1990s, when a generation of newly trained PhDs discovered that many baby boomers weren't retiring, which meant there weren't enough jobs in academia for aspiring new faculty. This trend continues today in the faculty pool of colleges throughout the country. The situation at universities is a result of two forces: tenure and law. Once a faculty member receives tenure, it is exceptionally difficult to fire him or her. Faculty can't be forced to retire either as a result of a 1994 law that, as a means to eliminate the problem of age discrimination, ended mandatory retirement for university professors at age 70. Two decades later, some observers now wonder if the situation is creating too little turnover in academia.

The trend of working well into one's golden years is also relevant in other contexts. For example, one in 10 baby boomers never plans to retire. This is most prominent in higher education where professors have the option to work as long as they wish. I'm not opposed to faculty, or anyone for that matter, working as long as they wish to, provided they are still able. Several faculty members at Pitt continue to be incredibly productive scholars and excellent teachers well into their 80s, but I know this isn't always the case. I fear that examples of professors remaining in the classroom for too long will be used as evidence for why tenure should be abolished. After all, tenure is the driving force when mandatory retirement is not allowed.

Mind the Gap

It can be challenging for students to relate to faculty from a different era. While the knowledge content offered to students may be the same across teaching generations, the nature of teaching differs because of preferences and resistance to change often associated with age. The age gap between students and tenured professors is widening, and with it the gap in relatable teaching.

Many students expect and in fact prefer a hands-on approach to teaching as opposed to lecturing. Today's students are digital natives and thrive on all things technical and web-based. For many older professors, this creates a disconnect between their teaching style and students' processing of information. Older professors may want to turn off the Internet in the classroom, while students wish to use it to enhance a traditional lecture. As the gap between teaching approach and student learning preferences widens, student learning may suffer. This could be one factor behind the too-low 6-year graduation rates exhibited at many colleges. It could also explain some of the resistance to change in higher education as older tenured faculty control curriculum and other student requirements based on academic governance systems.

Simultaneously, some older faculty lament that today's students aren't as respectful or as able as those of earlier years. I regularly hear about some students not being good enough -- despite the fact that test scores and admission factors suggest the current generation is better than the past. I don't know whether the fact that students expect more from faculty is causing pushback or whether faculty dedication to research is causing less available time to connect with students. Whatever the cause, it is apparent that expectations of faculty and students are diverging.

I know that students expect a different educational experience today; they tell me as much all the time. One of the challenges of having a generation of faculty used to lecturing is that many professors don't have the skillset of coaching that young people relate to. Instead of being spoken at, students expect to be engaged in the classroom through exercises and the chance to debate or discuss their own opinions and questions. Student preferences for learning have changed, and therefore it is important to have faculty who relate to the way students now absorb information. In fact, the intensive, active classroom is the antidote to widespread acceptance of online instruction. Ironically, by continuing a lecture-based instruction approach, schools hasten the movement of students from mainline institutions to online schools. This in turn likely heightens frustration for both faculty and students.

The trend of the older generation not retiring is not limited to the education sector. It affects the overall economy as the younger generation is squeezed to compete for fewer and fewer positions. In 2012, 41 percent of people over 55 were still working compared to just 29 percent in 1993. America's labor force is growing older each year and staying in jobs that could block the progression of younger employees.

Keep in mind that some of this trend is the result of an increase in economic uncertainty for older people. According to a Gallup study on baby boomers and retirement trends, many boomers carry significant debt, have not saved enough or rely too much on Social Security to retire comfortably, which was only exacerbated by the recession in 2008. The economic collapse resulted in layoffs, losses from stocks and a deep decline in home values, causing people to conclude they could not retire. In other words, many baby boomers wish to retire but cannot afford to do so.

Many baby boomers are choosing to stay in the workforce longer because they feel working provides a sense of purpose in life. Bill Byham, a Pittsburgh entrepreneur and insightful author, wrote a book several years ago titled 70: The New 50 in which he predicts that people are going to work longer for a variety of reasons. We may not see a growth in retirement rates until physical limitations require people to stop working. And it is important to recognize that it is difficult for people to retire. Beyond the economic concerns already mentioned, many baby boomers don't have hobbies, which gives them little to focus on outside of their work.

The youngest baby boomers are entering their 50s this year. If they continue to retire later and later, the effect will be tremendous in both the education sphere and across different industries worldwide. We need to address this issue not only to ensure the next generation is provided equal opportunity, but to also offer those who wish to retire an opportunity to do so and a chance to continue using their skills to make the world a better place.