In the last decade, the number of staff researchers aged over 65 has multiplied at the country's higher education institutions. Linköping University has the largest proportion of employees over the age of 65. The picture shows Campus Norrköping.

A balancing act between experience and renewal

Svenska 2018-02-26

The number of staff researchers over the age of 65 in Swedish higher education institutions has grown several times larger in just a decade. For universities, it is a delicate balancing act to both utilise the skills of retired researchers and to create the scope for renewal and new generations of researchers. A number of higher education institutions have established specific guidelines in this area.

Enjoy a life free of work after the age of 67 – or continue researching? While peers in other professions often look forward to their retirement, many researchers would rather continue working. However, it is not a certainty certain that they will be able to.

For universities, it should on the one hand be positive that skilled and experienced researchers want to continue making a contribution. On the other hand, the higher education institutions must weigh up this resource against their need for renewal and to provide opportunities for new generations of researchers.

The difficulties junior researchers have in establishing themselves has already been identified as a problem, and the accusation that people born in the 1940s are standing in the way of younger generations has been a recurring theme in Swedish debate since the 1980s.

To add to this, the welfare state has a great need for more people to continue working longer to compensate for the increasing average age and growing proportion of elderly citizens. Proposals to increase retirement ages have recently been presented.

Triple the number of seniors

Statistical data from the Swedish Higher Education Authority and Statistics Sweden show that the number of older researchers employed in Sweden has increased several times over in the space of a decade. The material does not draw a line precisely at 67 and therefore provides no confirmation as to how many are reemployed after retirement, but it does give a clear indication of the direction of this trend.

The number of research and teaching staff over 65 years of age employed at Swedish higher education institutions has increased three-fold, from 850 in 2006 to 2 550 a decade later. By comparison, the total number of employees increased by just under 30 per cent over the same period.

The statistics also show that the proportion of older researchers varies widely between different higher education institutions and disciplines. Linköping University has the highest proportion of employees over the age of 65 (12 per cent in 2016). At the other end of the scale are Uppsala University, Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) and Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) with around 4 per cent. Many of the larger higher education institutions have a figure around 8–9 per cent, for example the University of Gothenburg, Stockholm University, Lund University, Chalmers University of Technology and Karolinska Institutet.

When it comes to scientific disciplines, the proportion of employees over 65 years of age is highest in medicine (9 per cent) followed by the social sciences (8 per cent). The proportion is lowest in agricultural science (4 per cent) and natural sciences (5 per cent).

The statistics relate to employees of any kind and do not include the many emeritus professors who are active in academia under other forms.

Need for guidelines

Over the past decade, a number of universities have developed guidelines concerning how to manage the continued activities of retired employees. Many, but not all, use the term senior professor as the title of a retired professor who has been rehired.

Recurring principles in these guidelines are that such services should be financed using external funds, be part-time, limited in duration and extended by a maximum of one year at a time. It is also stressed that employees over the age of 67 should not have managerial duties or become principal supervisors of new doctoral students.

Lund University introduced its guidelines almost a decade ago. Prior to that, the higher education institution’s relationship with retired professors was very sparsely regulated, says Kristine Widlund, a lawyer specialising in employment law, who co-developed the regulations in 2009.

“There was little more than a decision from the 1950s that stated that emeritus professors should be offered an office if they wanted one. We felt that the rules needed to be clarified in order for the departments to make an active choice.

The question had come up of whether it would be possible to employ a professor after their retirement, for example someone who has brought in large amounts of external funding”, says Kristine Widlund.

“To say ‘you are welcome to conduct your research at Lund University, but you have to pay for expenses such as travel out of your own pocket’ did not feel right.”

The departments are given room for manoeuvre

Kristine Widlund recalls that it became pertinent for Lund University to examine this issue around 2009 due to several factors other than that people born in the 1940s are a large demographic group. Among these was that the number of professors had increased significantly since the 1990s due to the new rules on promotion. A questionnaire from the Swedish Research Council on how the university viewed emeritus professors’ opportunities to apply for external funding also contributed.

Kristine Widlund describes the university’s guidelines on senior professors and emeritus professors as “fairly open” – a conscious choice to give the departments room for manoeuvre.

“The circumstances vary between different workplaces; some have a need for more generous rules, others stricter”, she says. Therefore, deans and heads of departments are best placed to make these decisions. This is a balancing act that requires human and operational knowledge – senior researchers are an important resource, but at the same time there may be a risk that it will be difficult for younger people to get a chance when retired authority figures with strong opinions are still working.

Lund University currently employs around one hundred senior professors – the majority of whom have a part-time position of 20 per cent. The university has approximately 580 regular professors.

Creating a good mix of young and old researchers

Git Claesson Pipping, Director of the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF) thinks that universities can do more to utilise retired researchers’ continued involvement.

“Sometimes you get the feeling that the universities’ regulations concerning employment after the age of 67 exist more to obstruct people than to make it possible to remain. It seems wasteful for higher education institutions not to use skilled staff who are willing to continue sharing their expertise”, she says.

“The question must be: how do we ensure that there is both continuity and renewal in these organisations?”, she continues. “How do we create a good mix of senior and junior employees? My impression is that much of the operational planning takes place on a term-by-term basis, which creates a lot of trouble.”

Many people want to continue researching longer

“It is not uncommon for members to get in touch, requesting that the union support them in the dialogue with their employer in advance of their 67th birthday, but there is not much that SULF can do in the individual case”, states Git Claesson Pipping. “The legislation is clear: there is an ‘obligation to retire’ at 67, and it is entirely up to the employer to choose whether it wants to offer some form of continued involvement.”

Some members have been so disappointed by this response that they have left SULF.

“In most unions, members would rather the retirement age were lower”, says Git Claesson Pipping. Academia really is different.

Same quality after retirement

So how good are emeritus professors as researchers? “Bibliometric analyses neither support the notion that researchers who continue after retirement perform better than ever and nor do they indicate that they are past it”, says Ulf Sandström, researcher at Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Linköping University and Örebro University.

In a study recently published in Plos One, he has surveyed all Swedish publications in Web of Science 2008–2011, and it is also possible to compare age groups in the database created for this study.

“Percentile Model (PM) is a good measure for combining publication and citation in one value”, he says. Measured in PM points, we see that researchers who are active after retirement are neither better nor worse than the average researcher. Their performance is around average. The best results are those of senior researchers who are a few years away from retirement.

The PM measure does not take into account the fact that most senior professors and emeritus professors work part time – often around 20 per cent. However, Ulf Sandström points out that this is largely the case in the world of research in general; teaching, supervision and various organisational duties take up a large portion of many researchers’ working hours.

It can be assumed that the opportunities for older researchers to be successful vary greatly between different research areas, he adds. In many fields there is ongoing intensive method development – something that may be both a threat and an opportunity for seniors.

“It’s easy to end up offside. But a researcher who both understands how to utilise new methods and new data and is very experienced and wise, as well as a well-known name in their field, has very great potential to contribute with good research.”

Read more in Curie: Catch-22 for those who continue to research after 67

Text: Anders Nilsson
Photo: Anna Nilsen