Intergenerational inequality works both ways

There’s been a lot about age discrimination of late, but intergenerational tension comes in many forms and requires different solutions in different sectors. Here Kyle Siler talks about how ageism works against younger workers in academia.

Graduate, University


In the 2022 book Generation Gap, political scientist Kevin Munger chronicled the continuing dominance of the baby boomer generation in the leadership and control of major societal institutions, as well as concomitant disadvantages for subsequent generations. These generational antagonisms are prominent in science and academia. Sociologist Robert K. Merton dubbed science as a “gerontocracy”. Recently, Yale law professor Samuel Moyn trenchantly argued: “In countries such as the US, where mandatory retirement is lacking, universities have become senior centres and care homes, while a whole generation of younger scholars and intellectuals have been blocked from progressing in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.”

Early Career Scholars (ECRs) often face professional headwinds and bottlenecks due to resource and opportunity hoarding by senior academics. Intergenerational inequalities are a serious problem in contemporary science that should be acknowledged and ameliorated.

Today, most academic labour markets are narrow bottlenecks that winnow out large proportions of the ECR workforce. Various studies in different fields and contexts have suggested that roughly 10-20% of ECRs eventually assume tenure-track professorial positions. Consequently, labour economist Paula Stephan argued that universities should engage in “birth control” with PhD students. Overproduction of PhDs in tight academic labour markets is societally wasteful and unfair to many ECRs, who invest productive working years training for an academic career unlikely to materialise.

A buyer’s market

However, the dearth of tenure-track lines relative to the population of recent PhDs means that the ECR labour market is very much a buyer’s market. This benefits older, established faculty who have a large pool of skilled PhD students and postdocs available for short-term, precarious employment. Given power differentials in the ECR labour market, it is not surprising that material conditions (in terms of salary and security) for ECRs are often unattractive. Precarious academic jobs (which are often more exploitative than developmental) stunt the intellectual and professional growth of ECRs. It is difficult for anybody to engage in creative research when placed in short-term positions with limited autonomy. Relatedly, widespread mental health concerns among ECRs are related in part to poor work conditions and uncertain career prospects.

Escalating worldwide housing prices have bolstered the net worth of homeowners (who tend to be older), while raising rents and costs-of-living for others. This is a particularly acute issue in science. A relatively small number of high-status universities produce a disproportionate number of scientists and tenure-track faculty. These universities tend to be located in especially expensive locales. Using 2023 Fair Market Rent data for United States cities, and EIU CityData to impute housing costs for international cities, I charted apartment rental prices for cities associated with universities ranked in the Top 100 of the ARWU rankings. Almost all of these cities had rents in excess of the median United States Fair Market rent, sometimes substantially.

Wages for ECRs have rarely kept pace with these escalating housing costs. This adds life stresses and occupational hazards for PhD students and postdocs (who are often doing difficult-enough jobs in the first place!). Prohibitively expensive locales are more likely to deter or select out students from less-wealthy backgrounds, especially first-generation and racialised students, who carry heavier student debts and enjoy less financial support from family. Among other problems, inadequate funding and job quality for ECRs undermines socioeconomic diversity in academia.

Mandatory retirement?

Relaxation or elimination of mandatory retirement laws have further contributed to the greying of the professoriate. Collectively, faculty are getting older. Average ages of scholars receiving major research grants continue to increase. Many peer review systems have become slow, dysfunctional, and overtaxed, as the ratio of aspirational outsiders facing escalating publishing expectations to established academic insiders available for gatekeeping, has increased. The persistence of older faculty in academic careers delays and/or reduces vacancies that can be filled by younger scholars. This is not to imply that there is not value in the work of many older faculty.

However, older faculty enjoyed many advantages, including softer, less-selective labour markets and professional standards for hiring, tenure, and promotion. Creativity and cognitive skills vary throughout the life-course. Generational replacement is a source of innovation. Thus, excessive attrition and inadequate career opportunities for ECRs undermine both the present and future of scientific innovation.

The wage structure of academia also favours older faculty, while creating perverse incentives for older faculty to hold their positions for as long as possible. Academic wages generally rise with seniority, even though productivity is not correlated with seniority. The entrenchment of older faculty in secure, well-paid tenure-track positions (which in some cases, are comfy sinecures for unproductive deadwood faculty) should be contrasted with labour trends towards precarity and adjunctification for younger faculty over recent decades.

The insecurity and uncertainty many ECRs work under militates against productivity, innovation, and, most-importantly, quality-of-life. Academic resources are scarce and zero-sum, particularly as public appropriations for science and higher-education have faced cuts in many jurisdictions. For all its virtues, the tenure system also has downsides, including the entrenchment of some older faculty (sometimes for decades) that would and should be replaced in more competitive labour markets. Science policymakers should seriously examine and reconsider the distribution of resources (faculty lines, research funding) throughout the professional life-course. There are strong arguments to be made that these resources are sub-optimally skewed towards older faculty.

In the absence of a windfall of scientific funding, difficult zero-sum decisions need to be made about the distribution of academic resources and opportunities across generations and the professional life-course.

A major problem

The argument I set out here, and in greater detail in my recent paper, is that intergenerational inequalities are a major problem in modern academia. Limiting and stunting the growth of today’s ECRs harms research today, and even more so in the future, when entire generations of academics endure systemic underinvestment and stunted careers.

Policy interventions such as changing wage incentives for senior researchers, sunset clauses on tenure, and quotas on funding distributions based on professional age are possible solutions. In the absence of a windfall of scientific funding, difficult zero-sum decisions need to be made about the distribution of academic resources and opportunities across generations and the professional life-course. Academic leaders and policymakers need to recognise the problems with intergenerational inequalities in science, and implement swift and extensive ameliorative actions.

*Kyle Siler is a Research Professor at the Université de Montréal where he is Principal Investigator on a multi-year research project on status and legitimacy in publishing, funded by the Sloan Foundation. Kyle received his PhD from the Cornell University Department of Sociology. Twitter: @KyleSiler

This post draws on the author’s paper, Gerontocracy, labour market bottlenecks, and generational crises in modern science, published in Science and Public Policy. This article gives the views and opinions of the authors and does not reflect the views and opinions of the LSE’s Impact of Social Science blog (the blog), where it was first published, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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