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Ageism in Academia, Happiness in Old Age
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2010-06-08 08:15:10
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There is a subtle form of discrimination in Western societies which, while being illegal remains alive and well, especially in academia. At the same time the latest findings reveal that the majority of people get happier as they get older. Let’s briefly explore this seeming paradox.

In our utilitarian prone society the old are increasingly seen as disposable by many institutions because they allegedly are less energetic and less productive. Never mind the experience, knowledge and wisdom accumulated over many decades of dedicated service to the institution. Quite often the administration of our universities are burdened with this misguided attitude. But one hardly ever hears administrators suggesting that older administrators are less productive than younger ones.

So one is led to suspect that the real hidden agenda here is not so much a concern for productivity but budget reduction via retirement of older faculty. It never occurs to the administrators suggesting this financial solution that it is not only illegal but a form of discrimination and even harassment, perhaps the last acceptable, albeit hidden, form of discrimination in our brave new world. That this may be so is proven by imagining what would happen if an administrator were to even hint that in his opinion “women are less productive than men” and were to proceed to terminate the appointment of women in the faculty.

Actually we need not imagine it. Something like that has already happened at Harvard University a few years ago when its then president Larry Session (now in the Obama Administration) dared to suggest that men were better at math than women. He came close to being run out of the institution. The inescapable conclusion is that while sexist and racist remarks are definitely not tolerated in our society (at least publicly), ageist attitudes are still largely condoned. A whole book could be written examining the historical philosophical roots of this attitude wherein a human being’s dignity becomes a function of his/her utility to society.

Indeed, ageist remarks are hardly a new phenomenon in American history.  Cotton Mather, who is best known for helping to instigate the Salem witch trials, advised the old to “Be so wise as to disappear of your own accord.” Youth rules in America from its very inception. Wisdom  a bit less so. I would wager that some university administrators are hoping that lots of our senior faculty will heed Mather’s advice.

All of this is ironical when one considers that the life span keeps getting longer. At the end of the 19th century when the concept of retirement began, few people lived over the age of 65. Today the expected longevity is at least 30 years longer and baby boomers may well turn out to be the longest-living generation in human history. The question naturally arises: what are universities doing to rethink retirement in light of this longer life span? I would aver precious little at the moment.

Ultimately this is a failure of the imagination on the part of Universities’ administrators. It ought not be impossible to imagine that as people age, their interests often change too and that many older workers would much rather change jobs and try something new, even within the field they have been in all their life, than simply retire.  They want to try something new.  Universities have been very slow to adapt to these new realities.  Instead of encouraging older faculty to re-invent themselves and to take on new duties and responsibilities, they view older faculty as an impediment to change; and this despite the new trend in academia toward inter-disciplinary approaches to teaching and learning. The rigidity of administrative units in which faculty is placed need a fresh rethinking. This is long overdue at a time when private foundations have begun to provide funds in the form of fellowships that allow older workers an opportunity to enter new career paths.    The university ought to follow suit and begin to consider its older faculty as an asset rather than a liability.   Instead of trying to hustle them out the door with various incentives, they could be using the same funds to retrain them for new positions. Is anybody listening out there?

Let’s now try to put the above in the larger context of the population at large in order to see the whole picture so to speak, away from the narrower concerns of academic budgeting. A large Gallup poll has found that by almost any measure, people get happier as they get older. The telephone survey, carried out in 2008, covered more than 340,000 people nationwide, ages 18 to 85, asking various questions about age and sex, current events, personal finances, health and other matters.

The survey also asked about “global well-being” by having each person rank overall life satisfaction on a 10-point scale, an assessment many people may make from time to time, if not in a strictly formalized way. Finally, there were six yes-or-no questions: Did you experience the following feelings during a large part of the day yesterday: enjoyment, happiness, stress, worry, anger, sadness. The answers, the researchers say, reveal “hedonic well-being,” a person’s immediate experience of those psychological states, unencumbered by revised memories or subjective judgments that the query about general life satisfaction might have evoked.

The results, published online May 17 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, were good news for old people, and for those who are getting old. On the global measure, people start out at age 18 feeling pretty good about themselves, and then, apparently, life begins to throw curve balls. They feel worse and worse until they hit 50. At that point, there is a sharp reversal, and people keep getting happier as they age. By the time they are 85, they are even more satisfied with themselves than they were at 18.

In measuring immediate well-being — yesterday’s emotional state — the researchers found that stress declines from age 22 onward, reaching its lowest point at 85. Worry stays fairly steady until 50, then sharply drops off. Anger decreases steadily from 18 on, and sadness rises to a peak at 50, declines to 73, then rises slightly again to 85. Enjoyment and happiness have similar curves: they both decrease gradually until we hit 50, rise steadily for the next 25 years, and then decline very slightly at the end, but they never again reach the low point of our early 50s.

The study was not designed to figure out which factors make people happy, and the poll’s health questions were not specific enough to draw any conclusions about the effect of disease or disability on happiness in old age. But the researchers did look at four possibilities: the sex of the interviewee, whether the person had a partner, whether there were children at home and employment status.

Plato said that nobody can be a philosopher, i.e., a lover of wisdom, before the age of 50. According to Aristotle’s theory of “eudaimonia” (happiness), the search for happiness governs human nature. Therefore, to all those under 50, especially those affected by hubris and ageism, my sincere advice is not to despair: remain cheerful, for you are getting older by the day and happiness and wisdom, although not guaranteed, beckon from afar.  

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Andreacchio2010-06-08 21:15:48
Mr. Paparella,

It is, of course, a peculiar characteristic of our "progressive" Modern Age (the "Cartesian" inheritance, if you will) that "old" is so often associated with "bad."

Should we not retrace the problem to one of loss of respect for the sacredness of antiquity, and thus to the loss of PIETAS in the Virgilian and Ciceronian sense of the term?

(Incidentally, today not only the young despise old age; how often do we see the old busy pretending to be ever-young, ever-abreast of the latest fashions, ever-eager to be be at the center of everyone's attention, ever-desirous of universal recognition!)

Now, is not the modern progressive loss of PIETAS (civil consciousness) the basis for a radical reorientation of life away from Eternity and toward open-ended productivity? If the face of the former is the God of civil or public Religion, the face of the latter is the Machinery of Socio-Economic Change.

It is not surprising then that Happiness comes to be understood in terms of self-satisfaction or feeling-good about ourselves. For that is the condition of both the "initial matter" (viz. children) and the "end-product" of every one cycle of production among indefinitely many others.

Parenthetically, Plato's hypothetical suggestion pertains to philosophers' taking office as what we might call Senators. Surely he never contends the unreasonable, namely that the desire for wisdom is not found among the "young." Surely, the philosophical life is not limited to the segment of life nearing retirement.

Best regards,
Marco Andreacchio

Emanuel Paparella2010-06-08 23:20:25
Mr. Andrecchio, while I believe that most humans are born with a potential for reason and imagination (which complement each other)I also believe that nobody is born wise and knowledgeable ane the age of reason does not arrive till six or seven in any individual human; which is to say, nobody is born old, albeit movies and novels have been written on that reverse phenomenon. I think that even Plato would concur with Aristotle that wisdom and knowledge does increase progressively in humans, albeit the possibility of going backward (based on man's freedom) in any field remains a constant.

Emanuel Paparella2010-06-09 02:52:29
P.S. To quote Plato in his Republic: “At the age of 50 those who have [...] approved themselves altogether the best
in every task and form of knowledge will be able to behold the good; and when they have thus beheld the good itself they shall use it as a pattern for the right ordering of the State.
They will then devote the rest of their lives alternately to philosophy and
public life.” (Plato, Republic, 540a).

Obviously, what Plato is saying is that those who are under 50 and think that, having been born wise, they have reached the summit and are now beholding the good, are in effect deluding themselves. In other words they suffer from hubris and ageism. I repeat my advise Mr. Andreacchio: do not despair: you are getting older by the day and getting closes to the vision of the good.

Andreacchio2010-06-09 04:10:27
Mr. Paparella,
Not sure what to make of your comments.

(1) We are born endowed with imagination, not with a mere potential for imagination.

(2) Philosophy is NOT Wisdom.

(3) I had not suggested that anyone is "born" philosopher, but that, being desire for wisdom (NOT wisdom), philosophy is not necessarily alien from "youth." In Plato we find "young Socrates" as philosopher.

Plato does NOT state "that nobody can be a philosopher before the age of 50". A suggestion is merely made by one of the characters of Plato's REPUBLIC to the effect that the last stage of the formal education of philosophers entails political authority ("guardianship" of civil society). The "stage" does not pertain to one's "becoming" a philosopher. The same may be said, mutatis mutandis, of Plato's LAWS (Nomoi).

Best regards,
Marco Andreacchio

Prof. Bob Griffin, PH.D.2010-06-09 05:02:18
Professor Paparella,
Perhaps the heat of June makes you forget a bit that you are in the land of "The Fountain of Youth," FLA/USA; not a land of mature adults, but one "where the boys are."
But I forget, a problem of my age naturally, you were writing of schools, colleges and universities, and of Plato. Plato? Really? The intellectual aristocrat Plato among real estate, commercial and budget battling boards of education, university trustees, state governing boards, etc. in America?
Be real, my friend. Campuses, college and university, and the buildings attached to them are real estate investments in which faculty are to perform as paid servants. The pay is a salary because these days owning slave tutors, as in Ancient Greec and Rome is more expensive and troublesome.
Ageism? People are not supposed to grow older in this land of perennial adolescence, or - heaven forbid - acquire wisdom as the biblical book of Proverbs advises. Youth, and what William James called "our bitch-goddess 'success'", is our code, and with all youthful adolescent success, get rich. Nothing to do with Plato and philosophical wisdom at age 50.
Ah, but some will say I have just lost my youth and national fervor for optimism. Maybe so - or maybe "I've been there. Done that," as the saying goes.
What you describe as age discrimination in "the higher education in America is true, though an understatement. Been there, experienced that, too, and have survived to enjoy my retirement in the company of other "plantation" survivors.
But, what a waste of highly educated human resources!

Emanuel Paparella2010-06-09 10:23:11
Professor Griffin,
Thank you for your insightful comment and dialogue. Perhaps it bears mentioning here that I have forwarded these musings to some forty colleagues over fifty currently or formerly in academia inquiring of them if they too perceived ageism as a serious problem in academia in the sense of your last indignant statement in the comment above. It may interest you to know that yours has been the only public or private reply, so far at least. What is one to make of that silence and seeming indifference to the issue on the table? Either most of my colleagues do not perceive the phenomenon as a problem, or have no time to ponder it, or perhaps it proves to be too existentially and psychologically painful to deal with it? I am not sure.
Be that as it may, there is another response and it is the one above (by Marco Andreacchio) who, I know, is still under fifty. Perhaps the issue is more existentially significant to those who wish to assert that wisdom, like poetry, can come at any age and is not the exclusive domain of older folks? Here too I am not sure. Surely, Socrates too was a twenty something or a thirty something young man at one time and surely did some philosophizing even at that precocious age. He must have been a toddler at one time, and surely he did no philosophizing then, albeit he had from his birth, as most humans, an intellect with the potential to think and an imaginative faculty with the potential to imagine in some way integral part of all primitive thinking. I continue to hold however that as a child Socrates acted like a child and that most probably he used his imagination before he used his intellect as most children (and primitive mankind) actually do. I also continue to hold that the Socrates over fifty who took the hemlock in Athens rather than retire as a citizen of the global society some place else, is surely a more mature and wiser Socrates than the thirty something Socrates we see in some of Plato’s dialogues. I suspect that to admit that much also comes hard on the part of the twenty and thirty something whether they dwell in the place of the fountain of youth (sunny Florida) where “the boys are,” to use your apt slogan, or in that of the eternal snow and the winter of our discontent where melancholy reigns. Perhaps “maturity is all,” after all. As you know, that wise statement was proffered not by a philosopher but by a poet.

Marco Andreacchio2010-06-09 19:52:09
Dr. Paparella,

The general topic you address is worthy of universal attention. Now, back to specifics.

We philosophize wherever we realize that we are not wise. To the extent that the child does not realize that he is not wise, he does not question his sense of certainty, which, de facto, is his poetic or feigned "wisdom."

What you are calling "wisdom," Plato denies us access to. Only God is Wise in a non-feigned or non-political sense. Only God is truly Wise.

On the other hand, Plato loosely ties "age" to wisdom, for reasons discernible from my first comment (above): the old man offers an IMAGE of divine wisdom for the young (who otherwise tend to identify wisdom with power or motion, rather than with eternity or stillness).

None of this is to deny that generally speaking we'd wish a man to grow more decent and discerning with age. Vico reminds us that youth is the age of the imagination; while old age is that of reason, where the passions are calmed and order prevails over confusion. Obviously, our expectations need not coincide with reality. Nothing prevents a man from carrying his youthful conceit into old age, where an even worse conceit is bred.

Yet, in general, it is prudent to set up old age as a model for the young, if for no other reason, because the old remind us of the past, and the past reminds us of origins--and a society that is not turned toward First Things is a lost society.

Besides, it is good to remind the old (who, generally speaking, have a higher social status than the young do) of standards higher than themselves.

Best regards,
Marco Andreacchio

Emanuel Paparella2010-06-10 14:34:21
P.S. I wish to slightly modify the statement above regarding my perceived indifference to the problem of ageism in academia. It has come as a pleasant surprise that one of the Associate Deans of the university where I teach philosophy as an adjunct professor (Barry University)has asked my permission to disseminate the above musings among the institutions' faculty and has in fact done so. This is good news, not because they are my musings which have been expressed by others in other forums, but because it may mean two things: 1 I was not correct: there are indeed administrators who are painfully aware of the issue at hand, 2) the same issue may now have a chance at a modicum of discussion at one institution. Surely there are thers where the issue is under discussion and admittedly Barry University (a Catholic institution of higher learning)is only one institution among thousands in the USA but a jouney of a thousand miles always begins with a first step.

student DD2010-12-11 07:03:43
Agree with Prof. Paparella, but totally disagree with:(Incidentally, today not only the young despise old age; how often do we see the old busy pretending to be ever-young, ever-abreast of the latest fashions, ever-eager to be be at the center of everyone's attention, ever-desirous of universal recognition!)
I look at my mother and only hope I will be as vivaciously young and as entirely happy as she is at 75! I find that there are many very happy older people out there that would beg to differ with this opinion

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