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. Continue reading