Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Generational change in academia – it’s going to be boomers to the rescue

There are some rather wonky stats in this article, but whatever the precise figures, it is clear that Australia’s academic workforce is relatively old/“grey”. Rather less clear, IMO (although Richard Nile seems to have few qualms) is that this disproportionately-large boomer chunk (currently aged 44-60) will be retiring in the pattern of the last two decades; i.e. in their late 50s, on average. All the more strangely, Nile even has a bet both ways in this regard – but we’ll return to that.

As I’ve previously said, Australian academia would be better off with a straightforward, mass culling of boomers. Harsh, yes – there are some decent boomer academics. But not many; as Nile’s article notes, almost half of all currently-employed Australian academics were initially recruited between 1970 and 1975. That is, from a time when the main requirement for landing a white-collar job was having a pulse.

So far – and here’s the rub – Nile mightn’t disagree that there’s a lot of dead wood among the still-serving Gough generation. But these pre-1976 appointees are not to be confused with Nile’s own generation, which he terms the “baby busters”.

Geddit? Boomers (aka older boomers) had it all on a platter, admittedly. But those born between 1956 and 1961-ish (like Nile) – or “kids of the ‘70s”, as he terms them – experienced “economic hardship”! Gee, life must have been a bitch for them, for, even as they got their free tertiary educations between the mid-70s and early-80s, they had to deal with rates of unemployment (~5%) that were then considered scandalous, but are now considered full employment. Diddums. Even worse for the poor baby-busters, they had to endure having a “recession” – i.e. a downturn that came, and *went* (!!) – whereas my generation got a less virulent “dose” of recession – viz one that started during our uni days, and has lasted two continuous decades since. (Hell, if it wasn’t for my fortnightly queuing at Centrelink, I’d hardly even notice the unemployment monkey on my back).

So are Nile’s generation and Xers partners in (i) opportunity, or (ii) misery, then? “Tick” to “opportunity” – well, sort of. Nile writes: “The post-1987 cohort now finds itself central to orderly generational succession” (same URL). Apart from a wonkiness in the choice of date-range (juxtaposing “post-1987”-ers against early-1970s-ers implies that there was a decade-plus of nothing-at-all), this assertion just doesn’t ring true for the Xer part of this cohort. Most Xer academics are casuals who would consider themselves lucky to even be that; an assertion that they are going to go from that, to ruling the academic roost, within a few years is ludicrous

Assisting Nile to ignore the GenX realpolitik is a further set of cohort/age-range conflations. In fact, Nile’s “baby busters” even *merge* with GenX, when it suits his argument:

The younger of the baby busters merge with generation X and are in their late 30s and early 40s. These qualify as mid-career academics”. (same URL)

Oh, really? “These” (note that Nile doesn’t use “we/us” here) qualify for the dole, more like it. Nile’s generation-conflation here – divvying Xers up like they were late-30s Poland, for the enrichment (or conscience-salving, at least) of adjacent generations – is the mirror image of what Ryan Heath did in claiming early-70s born Xers for his perky generation of Tony Blair fan-clubbers. As if. And what about the rest of GenX, which both Nile and Heath ignore, albeit at converse ends?

But in the end, in Nile-world, which is to say boomer-world, today’s acute inter-generational injustice in academic jobs can be deflected from over-close scrutiny by simply saying that things will be all right in the long run. Yep, again in echo of Ryan Heath, it is GenY who are going to do a Saving Private Ryan on the ivory tower in due course:

There is no question retiring baby boomers will be replaced by up-and-coming academics from generations X and Y (the youth of the '90s)”. (same URL)

Note, no mention of Nile’s generation here – which seems to ambiguously, conveniently fall in the huge and hugely-illogical gap between the retiring boomers and the “the youth of the '90s” whippersnappers, aka academics of the future.

In the mean time, like now and for the next 20 years, it seems that we Xers will just have to put up with Richard Nile and his cohort re-arranging the deckchairs on the Boom-Tanic.

i am mortified and so offended to be called a 'baby buster', via his weird stats. for the record, i heard a boomer today in discussion with some genYers about depression (the claimed rise of 'yoof'depression)and the boomer said she believed her generation had the best of 'both worlds'. d'ya reckon she still qualifies as a boomer?
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