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

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.

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The Hidden Value of Serving Salad

Last Christmas, I received one of the best gifts in years, one that I never could have anticipated, when my family and I participated in a University of Pittsburgh event that provided a hearty holiday meal to people in need. My job was to serve salad — clearly not the glamour job on a day when stomachs were vying for turkey, ham, potatoes, gravy and desserts. As I dished out the greens, I was also challenged in my thinking about how well we in business schools are preparing our students to serve their communities.

People had three options at my station: Italian dressing, ranch dressing or no dressing. I quickly realized the challenge of my task when two people walked by with plates full of meat and sides and two servings of cake. They had no room to hold a salad — either in hand or stomach.

How do you sell salads in such a setting? I chose to thank people, to talk with them, to wish them a Merry Christmas and to offer a salad. It was amazing how well my approach worked. Each person got a special salad. Some chose the one they wanted, some wanted me to choose. Yet, over the course of my three-hour shift, I gave out each and every one of the pre-made salads on the cart.

The most rewarding part of my day were the conversations. In each interaction I learned about interesting new perspectives and more. One woman said she hoped I would not take her comment the wrong way, but she knew I was with the business school, and her experience with business graduates, especially MBAs, was that they cared only for money and themselves. She said it seemed as if we didn’t do anything to show students that there was more to life than wealth seeking. She asked why we were like this.

I explained that we do provide students with opportunities to give back, that we tell students that with success comes the obligation to better the community. She listened politely, but I don’t think I sold her on the arguments nearly as well as I moved salads to people.

Upon reflection, I believe there are many reasons why business schools have not been as effective in teaching generosity over greed. One is that we rarely are placed in circumstances that cause us to change our thinking about people, problems or the cost of poverty and neglect. Second, because we are very busy and mostly connected with a certain type of person, it is easy to assume that everyone can do just as well if he or she only tries. Another reason is our assumption that some problems are too difficult for any one individual to correct, so we may as well use our time effectively (effective time management is one of the lessons we teach), and that means leaving such problems for others to solve. Finally, it’s possible that we are guilty of spending so much time looking in the mirror that we no longer see anything other than what we wish. We become blind to the people and things we wish to ignore.

These ruminations boil down to three important observations: First, any gaps in business school education exist purposely. They reflect choices made by leaders, faculty and staff. It does not have to be this way. Second, it’s our community and our world. I can’t singlehandedly solve our problems, and neither can you. But I guarantee that we’ll never solve our most pressing problems if the vast majority of successful people choose not to act and engage with them. You need to crawl before you can walk. Finally, I learned that it is enormously fulfilling to spend time giving to others.

The enjoyment of volunteering far outweighs the imposition it creates on your time. In a world where many people see few solutions to the problems we face, one simple answer is to be a friend. In so doing, you’ll make a difference and feel great. In my case, I learned these lessons last Christmas, where the simple act of passing out salads to people in my community was a profoundly enriching experience.

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2014: A Contradiction of Devices and Desires

Technology dictated many major events in 2014. It was a year bookended by airline disasters, with three planes linked to Malaysian Airlines involved in catastrophes. It was a year of unrest — abroad and within the U.S. The actions and atrocities of the Islamic State drew near universal condemnation globally. Actions by police leading to the deaths of two black men caused riots and mass protests in the U.S. and may have inspired the murder of two police officers in New York City by a deranged man. We faced the resurgence of Ebola and a botched medical response in the U.S. The massive technology breaches that affected Target, Home Depot and Sony made people feel vulnerable (temporarily anyway).

As much as 2014 will be remembered by these seemingly unlinked events and tragedies, the common element to the widely publicized stories was the role of technology in causing the problem or the inability of technology to solve it. Because we love the beauty of technological solutions, we demand advances, even when concerns are raised by individuals or nations.

How could the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 carrying 239 people, a Boeing 777 jet that was 242 feet long, 61 feet tall, weighing up to 660,000 pounds, just disappear? Its systems connected hourly with a satellite telecommunications company even after all other communications stopped. Hope remains that the jet will be found at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, but the incident remains a mystery. Shortly after Malaysian Airlines flight 370 disappeared, another Boeing 777, this time carrying 298 people, exploded over the Ukraine, when it was hit by a missile fired by a surface-to-air system. The missile, traveling at a speed of 1,900 mph, decimated the airliner. And at the end of the year, Air Asia flight 8501, an Airbus A-320 aircraft with 162 people onboard, crashed apparently because of technical engine failures due to weather. Because Air Asia is a 49 percent subsidiary, it represented another blow to Malaysian Airlines. One question arising from the three air disasters is simple: at a time when components can “talk” and weapons have amazing speed, power and ability to kill, why couldn’t technology prevent ice crystals from forming in an airliner’s engines or even lead the plane around the problem thunderstorm?

In the United States, the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri sparked riots and heated debate. It also encouraged the practice of equipping police with body cameras that document their activities. The underlying theory is that the transparency afforded by such technology will provide better evidence to the public when something goes wrong (and may even cause all parties to mind their behavior). The theory was put to the test when the death of a man who struggled with police in New York was videotaped and disseminated widely. Even so, there was no clear picture because of the wide interpretations of what happened in the video. Again, it seems we have great confidence that technology will provide an answer to certain problems, but how do you address the interpretation and judgment issues that go hand in hand with the use of technology?

When the Ebola epidemic spread in West Africa this year, people in the U.S. were assured that such a problem could not happen here. The assurance evoked much cynicism when a hospital in Dallas seemed not to follow protocol when Ebola struck. Fortunately, we appear able to contain Ebola and cure those who are infected, but the same therapeutic technologies don’t seem to be available or effective in West Africa. In this case, there does not seem to be a technology solution.

Finally, in 2014, the data breaches at Target and Home Depot affected many U.S. consumers as credit card and other information was potentially exposed when hackers accessed secure terminals at those companies. This caused the reissuance of many credit cards and extra attention to monthly charges to determine if fraud had been committed as a result of the breaches. Near the end of the year, however, the Sony breach seemed to be more challenging because it exposed electronic information on a much broader scale and involved internal documents and communications. The U.S. government has called it an act of state-supported terrorism by North Korea.

The link across these top stories is the misuse and ineffectiveness of technology. Advances in technology in recent years have enabled many positive societal outcomes. Most people have cell phones, new cars have black boxes to record data (similar to an airplane) in case of an accident, cameras linked to traffic control software create smoother traffic flow in many cities and wearable technology allows people to monitor their activity, health, and connect with others. In 2014, many of the main stories emphasized the shortcomings of technology. While this may be affected by the proclivity of the media to emphasize the negative, it illustrates the vulnerability that is caused by dependence on technology, belief in technical solutions and the escalation of the problem.

Some individuals have noted that we are entering an age of the Internet of Things (IoT). This refers to the ability of devices and appliances to talk to each other remotely and wirelessly. In positive form, it allows you to lock your doors remotely, turn your oven on or off and view activities in your home or office from afar. It also allows the devices to “help” you by braking your car if you get too close to another vehicle or turning your water off if a leak is detected. But it also creates an enormous technology vulnerability that could be hacked. There have already been television plots involving deaths when someone hacked into an individual’s addressable implanted medical device. There is also much writing and discussion about advances in artificial intelligence and the ethical issues that must be addressed as we equip computers and robots to act like human beings. Will the common flaws in 2014’s top stories be tragically exposed in a worse way involving artificial intelligence in a future year?

Our societal and business challenge is to ensure the design of adequate safeguards in new and existing IoT systems and to avoid panic about the inevitable changes that will be created by open communication among devices and appliances. Moreover, in some ways, the coming wave of technology enhancements brings a darker connotation to the title of P.D. James novel and miniseries, Devices and Desires, as the enabling of devices unleashes some of man’s less noble desires.

My hope for 2015 is that we recognize the need to consider humanity while seeking a technology that is the next big thing. At one point in time, dinosaurs were the big thing. Ironically, technology could send humans the way of the dinosaurs as easily as it could improve our lives. The difference is at the margin but the cost is infinite.

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