Ageism and Hiring in the History Profession
Martin Mulford, December 2009
The history profession celebrates its senior scholars with accolades, awards, and high academic positions. It rewards junior scholars with grants, postdoctoral fellowships, and tenure-track positions. Unfortunately, for those who by dint of circumstance or choice come to the profession later in life, it is an almost insurmountable task to acquire either work or funding. I would argue that this represents an unconscious, but pernicious, ageism in the profession.
The prevailing concept of “junior” scholar represents one difficulty in recognizing this ageism. The term is implicitly understood as relating to age, in addition to time and experience in the profession. It is assumed that it describes a scholar in his/her mid to late twenties or, in rare cases, early thirties; one who is just entering the field, having recently completed her/his education without significant interruption. There appears to be no accommodation within this term for new entrants into the profession who came to the academy after spending substantial time on different career paths. Those, that is, who returned to scholarship to pursue a lost love, a new passion, or a more fulfilling career after a period in which they not only aged, but matured. Unfortunately, this maturation counts for little in either the process of re-education or entrance into the profession.
The discrimination begins with the return to studies. The “returning” scholars are stigmatized as “nontraditional” students in their graduate programs. “Nontraditional” being simply a euphemism for “older.” These students are generally marginalized in the determination of grants or stipends. It is difficult to find PhD programs willing to fund “nontraditional” students. Those students are expected to either bring funding with them or to rely totally on loans for any expenses beyond tuition (which is, admittedly, generously waived by most departments). Further, older students can be passed over for stipends that are readily forthcoming to younger students. For example, an older student had to produce excellent work for two years before the department relented and bestowed a stipend, while similarly qualified younger candidates received full funding from the time of their matriculation. This student’s lack of funds necessitated holding outside employment in addition to coping as a single parent. While this is not an unheard-of situation, it does cause difficulties in a number of areas, including allocating time and money for research and writing.
Further, grants and awards are more likely to be given to younger students, sometimes because of prescribed rules and sometimes even out of arbitrary preference. For example, a student of German history who is more than 35 years old will not even be considered for doctoral or postdoctoral funding from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Because DAAD is the key organization for funding in that subfield of the discipline, the older student is limited to funding from U.S. sources, which, in general, follow the DAAD’s lead in determining grant/funding recipients. Since DAAD, a German entity, is not required to conform to U.S. antidiscrimination guidelines, covert ageism results. This makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for older scholars starting to do academic research to take up studies of German history, since they will have to find the necessary funds.
Once the initial hurdle of acquiring credentials is overcome, the new scholar must address a difficult job market. At no time are the older new scholars advised that their chances of obtaining employment in the profession are seriously circumscribed due to their age. Nor is it suggested that even the time spent pursuing credentials can also be held against them. After all, a scholar in his/her thirties who returns to the academy can easily require the eight-year average to earn a PhD in history. The result can be that the new PhD is in the forties when receiving the degree. And those starting studies after a career in another field could be in their fifties when seeking that first appointment. This severely diminishes the chances that the scholar can expect serious consideration in the search process. Granted, the academic job market is a tough one, even for younger scholars. However, in addition to the normal difficulties in hiring faced by all candidates, as I outlined in an article in the September 2008 issue of Perspectives on History, older entering PhDs come to perceive that their age is a powerful element militating against them.1 Over time, the applicant develops the perception that the only thing that job applications are good for is fulfilling EOE requirements on age, disability, and/or gender. This comes about because Human Resources is generally the only department with which the applicant has contact, aside from the first and final departmental communication in March transmitting a rejection.
Another category of academicians entering the job market exists as well: long-term adjuncts. These scholar-teachers face enormous obstacles when or if they decide to restructure their lives. Being “just an adjunct” in a search committee’s eyes is bad enough, but if you add age to that, you have a lethal combination when it comes to procuring full-time employment. There can be several reasons for a scholar to stay in adjunct work for many years, including family choices, job shortages, or a desire to retain flexibility in the workplace insofar as location and schedule are concerned. However, when those circumstances change and a person who has been working as an adjunct for a period of years or even decades wishes to apply for a full-time position, the length of time as an adjunct generally redounds to that person’s detriment.
There also seems to exist the belief that something is wrong with a person of age just starting in the profession. Questions arise as to the reasons for the change of career path. Is it due to an inability to succeed in other avenues of endeavor? Is it due to frivolousness? Is it due to health problems?
This apprehension is understandable. It is, after all, possible that these scholars are less flexible; they may even have arthritis. However, although they may arguably be more susceptible to health problems, older workers are more likely, according to a study by ComPsych, quoted in US News and World Report, to exercise, eat healthily, and get enough rest than younger professionals.2 Additionally, illness is not restricted to older people. It is argued sometimes that hiring an older junior scholar may necessitate another search in less than 20 years. But this stance would appear to be a chimera conjured up to conceal ageism, since this objection does not take into account the likelihood of job changes in which younger scholars are more apt to engage nor the greater loyalty of older workers that has recently become broadly recognized.3
Students and professionals who are older frequently have greater motivation and clarity. They have experienced the vicissitudes of the world and are better able to prioritize their work. They are more likely to have real-world experience of responsibilities, such as a family, prior employment, or other duties, that have made them more reliable. They also have a greater focus on the work at hand. We have all known the pleasure of having a “nontraditional” undergraduate in our classes. They are more likely to complete tasks, to focus on the material, and to submit work that is superior.
It is, nevertheless, an unchallenged misperception that scholars do their best work in the first years of their professional life and the rest of their working life is devoted to refining and defending those initial successes. Along with the misconception that the student or new PhD who is older is less likely to contribute significantly to the profession, this is belied by the careers of several historians, most notably Lord John Acton, who wrote his most influential works after he reached the age of 40 and was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge in his 61st year. History requires life experience, even the experience from other professions, to more accurately reimagine the past. Is this not what the new scholar of age is trying to do with his/her life? Does not the assumption that you must be young to be a junior scholar block those who try to reimagine and reshape their lives into ones that are more fulfilling? Will they not bring diverse attitudes, deeper understandings, and longer-term perspectives? After all, they have lived long enough to understand that divergent perspectives should be cultivated rather than discounted. History studies the wisdom of the elders and holds it up as a paradigm. Yet we turn our backs on those who carry that wisdom from life experience, when we should accept, respect, and celebrate that wisdom. When we reject these scholars out of hand we lose that long lens, that unique orientation, and ignore the potential for mature insight from people who have come from other communities, environments, and vocations. In a profession that requires thoughtful and considered reasoning, it seems we do not look for it in the places in which it is most likely to be found. Unhappily, that which should be considered beneficial to the profession appears, in its hiring practices, to be considered detrimental.
Most people would agree that junior scholars of age have something to contribute to professional intellectual discourse, but that is not the bottom line, is it? No. It is all about money, cutting corners; that is, all about business. It is about the business of history, not the understanding of history. It is not that you are unable to contribute, it is that your contribution is not perceived as cost effective. It is another business decision based on the determination of what the cost analysis dictates, and it works against the profession. Ironically, older new scholars can be considered a bargain. They bring skills and experience that could not be had for the minimal salary of an assistant professor were they to be held by someone already in the profession. On the other hand, this does serve the adjunct pool. But, we know all about adjuncts, don’t we?4
In the academy the celebration of youth that came mostly as a result of industrialization, and was enhanced by the Baby Boom generation and the concomitant changes in advertising, particularly the advent of television, found its expression in refocusing hiring toward younger scholars, despite the availability of new scholars of age and experienced adjuncts who brought with them the wisdom and understanding that comes with greater maturity. The profession celebrates the older, more established, and recognized faculty, yet it still tends to hire the young for assistant professorships, ignoring the idea that someone who is older may bring compensatory positive benefits. This ageism persists despite the guidelines to guard against it that are a public part of the policy of the AHA.5 We should weigh experience, life skills, and understanding more heavily than simple chronological age. We need to keep in mind that enthusiasm, intellectual capability, and scholarly ability are not necessarily age dependent and, thus, only these factors should be the determinants, and not age. Historians have expressed profound professional and personal interest in racial and gender equality. Now it is time to express that same interest and commitment in generational equality in the process of hiring historians.
—After a more than 20-year career in business, Martin R. Mulford received his masters degree in history from SUNY, Brockport, where he studied under Robert Strayer, and, in 2005, his PhD from the University of Rochester, where he studied under Celia Applegate. In his dissertation, “Changing Models: The Conflict between the Settlers and Government in German East Africa,” Mulford investigated the ways in which the concept of Selbstverwaltung inspired the German colonists to insist on self-rule.
1 See Martin Mulford, “Hiring Historians: Can’t We Make the Process Better?” Perspectives on History, September 2008.
3. Milt Freudenheim, “More Help Wanted: Older Workers Please Apply,” New York Times, March 23, 2005; Leslie Knudsen, “The Silver Lining at Borders,” HR Management, 4th Quarter, 2006; Merge Gupta-Sunderji, “Sterling Silver: Why you should be recruiting employees aged 50 and over,” FMI (Financial Management Institute of Canada) Journal 17:1 (fall 2005), 23–24; Robert P. Levoy and Bob Levoy, 222 Secrets of Hiring, Managing, and Retaining Great Employees in Healthcare Practices (Boston: Jones & Bartlett Publishers, 2006), 27–28; et seq.
4. See Martin Mulford, “The Commodification and De-professionalization of the PhD,” Perspectives on History (February 2009), 20–22.