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The retirement wave myth

June 14, 2011

flickr - Peter Kaminski

Recently, reading the comments on a library blog post, I read a lament from a newly minted librarian about the lack of jobs and how the situation would be remedied would only the old librarians retire. The comment was not meant to be ironic, I fear.

Regardless of their chosen academic career track, who hasn’t heard at some point that a wave of retirements is going to sweep away the top of the profession, opening up many plum jobs for the Young Turks? I heard it in the early 90s when starting a PhD in German; not sure how much more wrong one could have been. I heard it when I went to library school, too, and I have yet to see any such wave.

Most retirements do not lead to a one-to-one replacement, and it’s been more or less accepted for years that the staffing in academic libraries is contracting over time. 1  The fact of the matter is that any open position in any organization gets tossed into the personnel budget hopper, and what comes out may or may not resemble what went in, both in level and responsibilities. In libraries, the personnel budget has been under assault for years given our need to maintain collecting levels, so downsizing is more or less built in.

I think it’s time to quash this particular myth once and for all. What makes any new graduate of any stripe employable in academia is a profile that an institution needs at that moment. Given how rapidly fads come and go in academia, trying to project what universities will need ten years in the future is about as likely to succeed as your lotto numbers for the week. Better is to have a broad skillset that is constantly under revision, where useless skills are let go and new are acquired.


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