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A scholar's life for me? The changing landscape of work in higher education

The 21st century workplace is very different from that of the last century. Academia, having undergone dramatic changes of its own in recent decades, is also subject to broader social changes. With life expectancy increasing, the default retirement age has been lifted; there are more women than ever in the UK workforce; and thanks to new techology and globalisation, even the physical boundaries of the workplace are shifting. What does all this mean for careers in higher education? Are these changes all for the better, or might academic life be getting harder?

Improvements in medicine and healthcare over recent generations mean many more of us, including academics, are capable of working long after the traditional retirement age. The potential benefits for universities are obvious. But while many academics are keen to remain intellectually active into old age, sceptics point out that economic pressures and pension worries are equally important factors in pushing back retirement. Moreover, is an ageing workforce bad news for younger academics, who might now struggle to break in and establish their own careers? Some fear a generation war in the Ivory Tower, with younger colleagues feeling like a jilted generation, their prospects squeezed by older staff. So are longer careers best seen as a positive embrace of greater longevity and wellbeing, or a more pragmatic and double-edged response to straitened circumstances?

More optimistically, some believe greater flexibility will allow older academics to make use of their experience and expertise without being burdened with the academic equivalents of heavy lifting. After all, the old linear career path is arguably a thing of the past. Women have long been used to taking time off to have children, while men and women alike take career breaks for a number of reasons, moving in and out of the higher education sector as well as between institutions with temporary teaching jobs, visiting scholarships and professorships. It has become common for academics to hold a number of different positions simultaneously. For some, however, the freedom that comes with flexibility must be weighed against the accompanying insecurity. So how can universities help staff make the most of a changing career landscape, and achieve a suitable work-life balance at all stages of their working lives?

 

The filmed debate can be viewed below.

 

 

 

 

Last updated: 10th October 2011