Older Academics and Career Management: An Interdisciplinary Discussion

By Larkin, Jacqui; Neumann, Ruth | Australian Journal of Career Development, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Older Academics and Career Management: An Interdisciplinary Discussion


Larkin, Jacqui, Neumann, Ruth, Australian Journal of Career Development


INTRODUCTION

The ageing academic workforce is one of the many challenges facing Australian universities. Over 40% of all Australian academics are aged 50 and over (Department of Education, Employment & Workplace Relations (DEEWR), 2008b), signalling that a large proportion of academics will exit the workforce with in the next decade. This is a critical trigger for univer-sity management to be responsive and proactive, and raises crucial sustainability issues for Australian universities in relation to human resource management (HRM), knowledge management and the role of the university within advanced modern societies. In a global, dynamic and competitive environment, universities cannot afford to ignore any of their human resources. This paper considers Australia's ageing academic workforce and the HRM challenges and implications this poses for Australian universities through an interdisciplinary discussion of the literature from three key areas: higher education, psychology and career and establishes that there is a paucity of research in the older academics/career management area, despite the demographics pointing to an ageing phenomenon.

AUSTRALIAN UNIVERSITIES IN THE CONTEXT OF DEMOGRAPHIC TRENDS

The consequences of an ageing population are expected to impact significantly on all facets of society, including labour force participation, housing and the demand for skilled labour (Productivity Commission, 2005). However, recognition at the organisational level is varied. According to Patrickson & Ranzijin (2005) 'policy and practice concerning older workers has been fragmented, piecemeal and reactive' (p. 736). Thus, organisations will be challenged to respond proactively with the development of HRM strategies that will embrace the knowledge, skills and experience of older workers and encourage workers to prolong their working lives.

Among the workforce sectors, education is experiencing the most rapid age increase and has among the oldest workers. In 2001, the average age of all Australian workers was 38.6 years, compared to an average of 43.3 years in the education sector (Common wealth of Australia, 2005). The education sector is subdivided into pre-school education; school education from primary to secondary education; and post-school education which includes higher education and technical and further education (Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 1993). In 1996, around one in eight academic staff was aged 55 and over but in 2008, it was one in four (DEEWR, 2008b). Variations exist across the sector and some universities will need to respond to an ageing academic workforce more urgently than others (Larkin & Neumann, 2008).

The ageing academic workforce is not confined to Australia. In a pioneering international survey of the academic profession in a number of developed countries (Australia, Brazil, Chile, Egypt, [West] Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Korea, Mexico, the Netherlands, Russia, Sweden and the United States) it was found that in nearly all of the countries surveyed, a large majority of professors were aged 40-50 (Altbach, 1996). As this study was conducted over ten years ago, this cohort would now be aged 50-60.

The phenomenon of an ageing academic workforce presents HRM implications for universities. Hugo (2005a, 2005b, 2008) suggests that universities need to concentrate on the three 'R's: recruitment of high quality academic staff; retention of high performing academic staff and return of academic staff currently in overseas postings. We offer a potential fourth 'R', the capacity to respond to change, particularly given the dynamic and changing landscape in which universities operate. Furthermore, there is a need for universities to ensure the continuing development of their older academic staff (Koopman-Boyden & Macdonald, 2003). These issues take on an even stronger imperative given the recent review of Australia's higher education system (DEEWR, 2008a), which recommends an expansion of higher education, teaching and research to meet the demands of a rapidly moving global economy, but recognises the matter of dealing with the looming shortage of academics. …

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