Thursday, 15 July 2010

Academics don't really retire, do they?

A little over three years ago, I started thinking seriously about early retirement. This was for a mix of reasons - partly to do with my health, partly to do with the growing bureaucratisation of universities, excessive 'management', and the like. My thoughts had nothing to do with any feeling that I was getting too old for the job, or that I was losing interest in economics or my students, quite the contrary. I have always been one of those fortunate people who love what they do, and I still do. However, at least a partial retirement seemed like a good idea, as I thought it might get me out of the parts of the job I liked least, namely form filling and administration; and to a large extent, so it transpired.

When I first approached the university, the human resources people proved very helpful, and quite quickly a deal was reached whereby I would formally retire at the end of 2007, and then be re-engaged on a one-third contract for three years from January 2008. This seemed ideal. As soon as all this came under discussion, another School in the university approached me and offered another part-time job, a one-quarter contract to work on a new degree programme, the DBA (Doctor of Business Administration). This sounded like an interesting challenge, so I agreed to that as well. As a result, in 2008 and 2009 I only succeeded in retiring for 5/12ths of the time, as my two very different part-time jobs in different schools meant that I was still working for 7/12ths of the time. This year (2010), I reorganised my 'work portfolio', which proved to be a very bad idea - more on that in a later post.

How does the university help staff in their progress towards retirement? Well, in my case, aside from some nice social events to mark the transition in my life, the university did three things. First, the HR section sent me a formal letter thanking me for my services to the university since about 1975 - which was a bit of a surprise, as I didn't start at Heriot-Watt University until 1985; but I suppose little mistakes like that are bound to occur now and again. Second, they sent me a book about 'enjoying your retirement' or something like that, with lots of information about managing finances (though surely we should have figured out how to handle our money by that stage of life), activities we might take up to keep us occupied (I particularly remember an item about the National Jigsaw Society, which I still haven't followed up - a careless oversight), and rather macabre topics such as writing a will. I expect for many people, this could have been quite a useful volume, but not much of it appealed to me I must admit. Last, the University invited me - on several occasions - to training sessions on 'preparing for retirement'. I have spoken to colleagues who said they found such sessions helpful, but I (politely) declined to attend.

Thus I have approached retirement in a rather gradual way, via a period of part-time work. The idea of just stopping work very abruptly has never greatly appealed to me, so I'm pleased to be in a profession where it is quite common to retire over a period, and where institutions actually facilitate and support such an approach. This feels very civilised, not least because the brain doesn't just switch off on a particular date (or so I hope and believe!), and old habits of thinking and writing don't end either. Hence with luck, I can continue to do academically interesting things, albeit in a more leisurely and less pressured way than formerly, and still contribute in various ways to my university.

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