Under age-discrimination laws, college professors, like most American workers, can’t be forced into retirement. Congress ended mandatory age-70 faculty retirement in 1994, after the National Academy of Sciences predicted the change wouldn’t increase professors’ average retirement age.
But that prediction was wrong, data suggests. A 2013 study by New York University researchers found the average retirement age at one unnamed Northeastern research university rose from 69 before the law to 73 afterward, with one-quarter of faculty still on the job at 78.
Using federal data, University of Iowa researchers have calculated that the number of faculty over age 65 doubled between 2000 and 2010. Postsecondary educators now have a higher median age than any other occupational group, they found.
Although the population as a whole is living longer, healthier lives, delayed retirement seems to be a faculty-specific phenomenon. “You don’t see analogous patterns in other sectors of the economy like you see in higher ed, of working to these later ages,” says Paul Yakoboski, senior economist at the TIAA Institute, the financial services company’s research arm.
“It’s a physically easy job—we’re not lifting hay bales all day. It’s not really that stressful, to be honest with you,” says Brian Kaskie, associate professor of health policy at the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health, who studies higher education’s response to the aging professoriate. “It’s a great job. So why leave it?”