“Fading @ 50?”: a study of career management for older academics in Australia
thesisposted on 28.03.2022, 10:53 by Jacqueline Larkin
Within Australian universities 42% of academics are aged 50 and over, which suggests that universities face an unprecedented human resource challenge with the potential retirement of large numbers of their academic workforce. For sustainability reasons, it is imperative to understand how the future career plans of this age cohort are incorporated into university HRM strategies, policies and programs. This study explored the perceptions of career management for Australian academics aged in their 50s from both organisational and individual perspectives, and contributes to the much-needed research on universities’ responses to their ageing academic workforce. This qualitative two-phase study purposely incorporated different university types and academic discipline groups to capture the diversity of Australian universities. Phase 1 analysed publicly available institutional HRM policy documents from 16 Australian universities and Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA) audit reports for the period 2006–2009 for 21 Australian universities. The findings of Phase 1 informed Phase 2, which consisted of semi-structured interviews (n=52) with academics aged in their 50s, with academics holding university management positions, and with administrative staff in senior university HR positions. Data analysis drew on several theoretical frameworks: Miles and Snow’s strategy typology, the Resource-Based View of the Firm and the psychological contract. Contrary to the forecast of an ageing academic “time-bomb”, this study found that the majority of academics had no intentions of retiring. Some of these academics were categorised as “Fifty and Flourishing”, meaning that they wished to continue working as they are highly motivated, strongly committed and passionate about their academic pursuits. Others, also not planning to retire, categorised as “Fiftyand Financially Focussed”, were seeking to accumulate more superannuation in order to have enough money to retire. Those academics who planned to or were strongly considering retirement were categorised into three groups: “Fifty and Flexible” – academics who had the financial incentives of superannuation and pursuit of leisure activities influencing their intentions; “Fifty and Fit” – academics whose plans to continue working or retire depended on their health; and “Fifty and Frustrated” – academics whose intentions were influenced by their perceptions of the unsatisfactory state of their working environment. `This study also found that older academics’ perceptions about promotion and performance management were predominantly negative, and many felt constrained by non-supportive university management and leadership. Specific concerns about promotion were related to perceptions of limited opportunities, flawed promotion processes, and lack of career development support. Among the academic participants there were overwhelming feelings of dissatisfaction, coupled with cynicism and anger towards the purpose, process and role of university management in performance management systems. Many older academics felt that they were invisible to university management. Both the document analysis and the interview findings indicated that academics aged in their 50s were “not on the radar” of university management. Universities’ actions to date on career management for their older academics failed to recognise the different facets of academic careers and instead were reactive, designed to respond to short-term needs, and lacked an organisational strategic focus on either workforce planning or the career needs of older academics. Notably, senior management academics interviewed did not perceive older academics to be a valuable resource and, consequently, largely ignored them in their planning processes. These negative perceptions of older academics also suggested ageist and discriminatory attitudes, including a misconception of age and productivity, and a narrow and stereotypical view about age and career stage. In contrast, middle-level management expressed their desire to be proactive in supporting and utilising their older academic workforce, but a perceived lack of budgetary flexibility and control impeded their capacity to do so. Overall, this study highlighted that the university’s role in career management for older academics was limited and ineffective. The central recommendation from this study is for universities to re-think a “one size fits all” approach to career management, and recognise the competitive advantage they would achieve by proactively leveraging the highly specialised advanced knowledge and experience of their older academic workforce.