Those smart gals over at Women in Higher Education are talking ’bout my generation. (Sorry for the generationally inappropriate reference there–should I say, “Oh well, whatever, nevermind?”) In an article called “A Perfect Storm: Gen X and Today’s Academic Culture,” in which they warn that “[s]ea change is coming. Retirements and growing enrollments mean colleges and universities will need to hire new faculty in the next 8 to 10 years. Where will the talent come from? With all the choices available, will the best and brightest be attracted to an academic career?”
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before! A lot of us Gen X’ers fell for that line around 1989-90 and marched off to grad school confident that this time, the great wave of retirements would actually happen, and that universities would hire tenure-track faculty to replace the retirees, which would bring us to the promised land of bountiful employment opportunities! (And this time, Lucy would let Charlie Brown kick that damn football.) But, the article continues:
Demands on junior faculty have increased in recent decades. Young people’s expectations have shifted in the opposite direction; they fully expect a career and a life, with flexibility for both parents to spend time with the kids. Unless universities adapt, they may lose potential candidates to the private sector.
What??? The private sector? Why didn’t I think of that before? I’m sure there are loads of opportunities for physical anthropologists, medieval Chinese historians, continental philosophers, and experts in seventeenth-century French drama in the go-go, for-profit private sector! (I’m sure that you engineers, biomedical researchers, and business school people have those options–don’t rub it in. My point is that these articles imagine that anyone with a Ph.D. can still work in their field in “the private sector,” but for most Liberal Arts faculty members that is not a realistic Plan B.)
The rest of the article raises some interesting points about the clash of generational cultures in the academy–between the Traditionalists (born before 1943), the Baby Boomers (1943-1960), Gen X’ers (1961-81), and Gen Y (born since 1981). (I thought the Baby Boomers were 1946-64, and that Gen X was 1965-80ish? Wev.) However, I wonder if the generational differences the researchers found has more to do with life stage than with generational expectations. For example:
• Hierarchy. Traditionalists like a top-down organizational structure and boomers accept it. Gen X prefers a flat one.
• Job changing. For traditionalists, changing jobs carries a stigma. For boomers it’s a setback on the career ladder. Gen Xers expect to change jobs again and again; it’s the only way to be where they want.
• Motivation. Traditionalists are motivated by a job well done. Baby boomers work for money, title and promotion. For Gen X the motive is self-fulfillment, freedom and fun—leaving older folks aghast or scratching their heads.
• Performance review. If no one’s yelling, a traditionalist thinks all is well. Baby-boomers want a well-documented annual evaluation. Gen X wants constant feedback: “Sorry to interrupt again: How am I doing?”
• Work hours. Traditionalists think it’s prudent to put in the required hours and wonder who’ll do the work if flextime creeps in. Boomers hope long hours will pay off in money and promotions. Gen X says, get a life!
But–shouldn’t we expect older faculty who have stayed in the academy and have successfully progressed up the academic ladder to “like a top-down organizational structure” or at least to “accept it?” Shouldn’t we expect that junior faculty, who happen mostly to be Gen X’ers at this point, to be more mobile, to need more feedback, and to prefer a flatter organizational hierarchy? These preferences seem to reflect one’s self-interest given one’s relative age and status in the hierarchy, rather than any preexisting generational attitudes.
My guess is that those Gen X’ers and Gen Y’ers who stay in academia and proceed to tenure and promotion will become Organization Women (and Men). Historiann has been tenured for almost four years now, and I can feel it happening to me too, despite my Gen X orientation of being “skeptical and expect to be in charge of [myself.] If [I] don’t like it, [I’ll] leave.” Been there, done that–but as a tenured faculty member, I’m part of the decision-making power structure, and I’m expected to enforce standards and do it according to rules that were written by Traditionals and Baby Boomers ahead of me in the generational hierarchy. Hint: this is why the “medieval” institution of the university is so good at replicating itself, and why institutions change mostly for the benefit of institutions, not for the benefit of individuals. This is also why I just laugh mordantly whenever I hear people talking about how “liberal” universities are, and that they’re full of Marxists and radical feminists bent on destroying Western Civilization. If only! But even then, we’d be stuck with a system and a set of rules that’s mostly about protecting and maintaining the organization, not about helping new faculty members unlock their creativity, realize their potential, and become more totally awesome and revolutionary.
My point here is that every generation born in the late nineteenth or twentieth centuries thought that they were a revolutionary generation that was going to really shake things up. All of those New Women pouring into colleges in the late nineteenth century? Wow, that will change everything! The generation of progressive reformers and the “sad young men” after World War I? Totally changed everything! The “angry young men” outside of the traditional ruling class who poured into Universities on the G.I. Bill after World War II? Totally changed everything! The Baby Boomers who went to college in the awesome 60s and 70s and protested against the war and for free speech, Civil Rights, and women’s rights? Totally changed everything! We Gen X’ers were accused by Baby Boomers of being Reaganite conservatives in the 1980s, then slackers in the 90s, but now that we’re junior faculty moving into the senior ranks? We’ll totally change everything, like everyone else before us, natch.
Don’t get me wrong–I certainly prefer living and working today to any other point in history. In fact, it’s only because of Affirmative Action that I and most of the people in my department have faculty positions–not just us XX chromosome types or PoC types, but also the white men in my department from working-class backgrounds who attended community colleges and public universities instead of elite private colleges and universities. Affirmative Action has meant that hiring committees must consider all qualified applicants–a rule that seems to be only common sense, but that was actually pretty revolutionary in opening up the field of potential candiates for faculty positions. (In the old days, faculty searches were frequently phone calls to one’s grad school friends to ask if they had any likely grad students finishing up!) Finally, I don’t mean to beat up on this article, or the people who conducted the study–they make very worthy (if not surprising) observations about the gendered expectations that weigh on women faculty both at home and at work–and some worthy (if unoriginal) prescriptions for how to level the playing field. These are suggestions that have been made many times before over the past thirty or forty years, of course, and we’re still making them today. (Gee–I wonder why, with all of the awesome revolutionary change that’s been happening?) Things have changed for the better over the course of my lifetime, but we still have a very long, long, long way to go.