Where did you dig up that old fossil?
Ben is a great man.
Yeah, great at getting us into trouble.
I will make no comparisons between me and Obi-Wan Kenobi in this post, though it's true that in the past few years I've taken to wearing a hoodie during the winter months. Rather, the quote leads off this piece because it conveys the intended meaning of fossil that is in the post title.
While I do want to consider a few examples of my drift toward being a fossil, what I really want to do is juxtapose these with questions about the labor market, to try to illuminate potential issues that are being batted around now. In particular, there have been many pieces as of late on the aging of society in America, overall low population growth, and labor market shortages. The immediate thought is that senior citizens working some, even after they've reached the retirement age, would become a normal thing. Some senior citizens do that now, President Biden for example. Perhaps better examples come from the guy who makes deliveries for our florist and the guys who run the shuttle service for the car dealer. I suspect they do this work to amplify their income and because it is do-able and not too stressful for them. So it happens already, but perhaps not at the scale that it needs to happen in the not too distant future. What things would need to be put into place in the not too distant future for it to happen at the appropriate scale? Or is that even possible?
My Drift Toward Becoming A Fossil
My first example of becoming a fossil is my blogging, which I began back in 2005, partly because I found the listservs I was on then inadequate for sharing my ideas and partly because I didn't have a colleague in the know to have a coffee with on a daily basis and I needed some way to express my formative thinking. Before too long I became part of the .edu blog community, which meant reading and commenting on other blogs in this community as well as writing my own. I developed a reputation for writing long and complex posts. At the time there was a slow blogging movement whose members' inclination was to write in a manner contrary to the general drift of writing online. Indeed, Barbara Ganley, who appears in the photo that leads off this piece became a friend and colleague for me till about summer of 2010, when I retired.
I do want to note that I was different from the other .edu bloggers in the job I held at the time. At the start I was Assistant CIO for Educational Technologies at Illinois, a very large research university. That was a fairly high level administrative position. Most of the other .edu bloggers had mid level positions and weren't part of IT management on their respective campuses. So, part of the audience for my blog was vendors who wanted insight into the thinking of upper IT management on the various campuses. Virtually none of my peers job-wise wrote a blog. Consequently, the vendors glommed onto what I wrote. Likewise, on more than one occasion I wrote on politically contentious ed tech issues that non-IT administrators on my campus would read. For example, after the fact, I learned that this post caused some consternation. But I heard that from a friend, not from the people who were upset with the post in campus administration. I learned to write in a style of reasoned argument, which meant I wasn't a cheerleader for a particular cause, and tried to be evenhanded in the posts, asking questions that others didn't seem to be asking and making conjectures about possible answers but not giving definitive solutions. Reasoned argument, formative thinking, conjectures about answers to puzzling questions, and slow blogging go hand in hand.
After I retired, in summer 2010, I continued to blog but there were changes in how I went about it. I wrote on more varied topics, sometimes nostalgic posts about childhood, other times about national politics and/or economics. The posts that were about undergraduate education, still the core of what I wrote, were based more on my own teaching. I would teach one class a year during the fall semester. Those experiences informed what I wrote about. On the other hand, I stopped reading other .edu blogs for the most part. While I did read Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education some, much of their stuff that is written by staff is arms length. And with their opinion pieces that are typically contributed by some faculty member, you have little sense of the author ahead of reading the piece. So it is unlike reading someone's blog who writes regularly and whose voice thus becomes familiar. I'm an introvert by inclination. But I value exchanging ideas in a social setting with colleagues. The upshot is that for me there was much less of this sort of social interaction and much more of me simply working through my arguments in my head. My introvert tendencies were amplified as a result.
Two consequences of this are first that my frequency in posting went down. When I started I was making a post almost every day. After retirement, that went down to about a post a week. Then it lowered even more. Over the past six months or so it has been one or two posts per month. And the second consequence is that posts have gotten much longer, so that even after I go to the keyboard it usually takes two or three days and possibly a week to complete the thing. This combination of low frequency and very lengthy posts cuts against current trends in informal online writing. My audience has fallen accordingly. While I regret that, I'm writing this stuff now as therapy for me, to help me understand things. Making sense of things is what keeps me going, so I intend to stick with doing the blog writing that way. Later in the piece I will discuss that there may be some hidden benefits from this approach, which are not so fossil-like.
Let me turn to the next example. This is about being a mentor for Illinois Promise, a scholarship program on campus for students who come from poor families. Early on in the program it was found that students who had mentors had higher retention rates than those that did not. So, thereafter the program tried to encourage mentoring, although it remains opt-in for both the mentors and the mentees. I became a mentor the year after I retired and have done it most years since. I didn't try to be a mentor in 2018-19 for health reasons, nor in the following year because I was teaching in fall 2019 and I thought that was enough for me. But I wasn't teaching in fall 2020 and even with the pandemic, I thought I could mentor fine online, using Zoom fairly frequently for interactions with the mentee and/or writing online asynchronously in whatever application the mentee preferred. (I seem to recall that WhatsApp was mentioned in this context but of that I'm not sure.) Given the circumstances, the program was okay with totally online mentoring. I did go through the mentor training and had some further interactions with the person who was in charge of matching students to mentors. All of that seemed to go reasonably well. Yet I wasn't matched with a mentee, the first time that's ever happened.
In the grand scheme of things this is not a big deal. But it's precisely because it's not a big deal that I want to analyze the situation, to come up with plausible reasons for this outcome without, I hope, ruffling any feathers. In this analysis I will introduce the usual economic jargon, which is helpful in considering the overall labor market issues, and some non-economic factors as well that otherwise may not come up in the discussion.
Mentors can be retirees like me, or current faculty or staff, or current students, particularly those who are also in Illinois Promise, and I believe members of the community who are not otherwise affiliated with the university can also serve as mentors. Who should the student want to be their mentor? Let's try to tackle that question first.
If you conceive of the mentoring as mainly about academic issues, with the student life component relevant only insofar as it impacts the academic side, then the students should be looking for expertise on the academic side from the mentor. Expertise in the academic side should be related to the formal education the mentor has and, more importantly, the research the mentor has been engaged in, which might be listed on the bio document that students get to peruse, as well as time on campus to understand how things work at the university. The place is big and bureaucratic and sometimes to cut through that and get answers to questions requires understanding of the system. In both cases you'd refer to the expertise as human capital. In a coarse way, human capital can be measured. In this dimension, retired faculty and current faculty have more human capital than current students.
But it may be that even on the academic side of things there is a student perspective that eludes most faculty and staff. Other students on campus would have an advantage in understanding the student side of things. This is an example of specific human capital, the type that comes from direct experience with a specific organization. Juniors and seniors in Illinois Promise who started as first-year students will "know the ropes." Recalling their own trajectory on campus, they might be better able to get a new first-year student up to speed.
Then, let me turn briefly to student life issues. It may be that the mentee is more concerned about being lonely, coming from a high school that doesn't send many students to the U of I, than about anything else. A student mentor might then solve this problem by introducing the mentee to other students on campus who are in Illinois Promise and want to be their friends. In some ideal, perhaps, the Illinois Promise student would become friends with students on campus from a diverse set of backgrounds and circumstances. Maybe that is possible, particularly for a very outgoing student. But for the shy student, loneliness is surely a concern. If mentoring might be a path out of that, that's the path the student will select.
Let's return to the academic issues but consider this from a different angle. In the late 1990s I experienced this "natural experiment" in the class I was teaching then, a very large intermediate microeconomics class, my SCALE project. A significant part of the innovation in that class was to use undergraduates who had previously taken the course and done well in it as TAs, who would have online office hours during the evening. (Intermediate micro typically did not have graduate student TAs at that time.) While this proved to be quite popular with the students, some of the students requested that these TAs also hold face-to-face office hours. I accommodated that request. By a scheduling glitch, those TA office hours overlapped some with my office hours. The TA would be sitting in an office just across the hall from me and students who went to the TA office hours had to walk past my office, so I could see them do that. On quite a few occasions, students would opt for the TA rather than see me, though I was available for them at the time. This experience offers something of a puzzle.
On human capital grounds, regarding understanding economics and how the course was designed, I had much more human capital than my TAs. That much is indisputable. Evidently, the students who went to office hours and went to see the student TA when I was available didn't base that decision on human capital considerations. It seems to me a psychological explanation better explains the student choice. Going to office hours can be psychologically uncomfortable, because the student is showing that they don't understand something which they feel they should be getting. This is tantamount to admitting they are stupid. It's hard to admit you're stupid in front of an authority figure. (Indeed, some students are uncomfortable when in front of an authority figure without the not understanding something an issue at all.) It's easier to open up about not understanding with a peer. Doing so seems less consequential.
So, I conjecture this issue matters in the mentoring as well, even if the mentoring does focus on the academic side of things. The mentees may simply be more comfortable with student mentors.
Thus, getting back to the question of who the student should want as a mentor, the analysis shows it can cut either way. There isn't one right answer.
Now let me further embellish my recent experience with not being matched to a mentee. I'm quite sure that at the training I attended (in Zoom) I was the only retiree in the session. And in my interactions with the person who was running the matching, a former Illinois Promise student herself, I was told there are only a few retirees now wanting to serve as mentors. When I started as a mentor there were quite a few retirees doing it. What has happened in the interim to effect this change? There are two factors that are evident to me. One is the pandemic. The other is change in the leadership of Illinois Promise. That the pandemic matters here seems sensible, as the pandemic has mattered for all our ways of going about things. But how and why it matters is less obvious to me. So I'll mention it only and move on. Regarding leadership in the program, when I started the Director's spouse was a dean on campus of a small college. This would seem to bias her views about mentors in favor of current and retired faculty. The current leadership, as I've already suggested, may be biased in favor of mentors who are current Illinois Promise students.
It is tempting for me to think of this change as generational and an example of what happens more broadly in society. When the younger generation takes over, the privilege of the older generation is then transferred to the younger generation. This may be too broad strokes for serious consideration, but I will use it nonetheless to talk about ageism and what may be a significant issue with redeploying retirees into other lines of work. I think the issue is not so much a person's chronological age. Rather it is continuity or not with the work environment and the confirmation bias (which we all have) about those who lack such continuity. In other words, the person can seem a fossil, quite apart from the person's capabilities, because others who are younger perceive it that way. And, if that's right, to re-employ retirees in large numbers it would require some way to combat those perceptions or to find areas of work where those perceptions don't matter.
Let me give one more quick example before turning to the labor market issues. With some irony, I did not teach in fall 2020. I was asked to teach then, but I told the Econ department that we planned to be in a warmer climate after Thanksgiving, so I would only be able to teach if near the end of the semester I could move the course online. This was before the pandemic and the department refused to make that accommodation - all undergraduate courses were to be taught face-to-face. The department went through a change of leadership soon thereafter and nobody tried to reverse this decision after the pandemic made it clear that most instruction would move online.
As a consequence, I don't know the attitudes of students who went through this experience via my own teaching. There has certainly been a lot written about it, but I tend to put a lot of stock in my own teaching experience and learning from that. Now I am lacking that way. Does that make it impractical for me to teach again in the near future? In other words, does the lack of experience from not teaching last fall trump all the prior experience I do have, because the ground has moved under our feet and things are truly different now? I don't know. I simply want to note this might be an example of a third way to become a fossil - missing out on a big common experience that significantly impacted the mindset of others.
There are other ways where my mindset and experience is different from my sons, both who are in their late 20s. I don't play video games, having stopped doing that in 1999. Other than reading the Harry Potter books aloud to them when they were kids, I don't read fantasy fiction. I don't listen to hip hop music. I don't participate in fantasy football. And, mainly, I don't watch current movies. All of this creates some distance between me and people of their generation. In itself, it doesn't make me a fossil. But taken together with those factors described above, it contributes to that perception.
* * * * *
Retirees and the Labor Market
The above can be thought of as background material for what will be argued in the rest of the piece. The underlying questions I want to address are these. If there is a chronic labor market shortage because of demographic factors, should retirees who are fossils or are near to becoming fossils re-enter the labor market to increase supply and ameliorate the shortage? If so, how might that happen?
Let me make some caveats before addressing the questions. First, labor market shortages that are evident at present might be fully attributable to consequences of the pandemic, particularly that parents with young children had to reduce their labor supply or withdraw from the labor market completely. This shortage is no doubt real, but it is near term. If we get past the pandemic and return to something we call normal, this shortage will fix itself, at least one might hope that to be the case. Here we're focused on a more long term issue. With low population growth and the aging of the population overall, the fraction of the population working full time is likely to shrink. That will produce its own shortage, or so the thinking goes.
Second, there are some factors cutting the other way, notably the increasing importance of artificial intelligence as well as the ongoing automation of many work tasks. These factors reduce labor demand. As a result, the above mentioned labor shortage may never manifest. Nonetheless, there are apt to be substantial issues of timing as innovation will be implemented unevenly in the future. Moreover, there might very well be increased challenges regarding income distribution, further skewing an already unequal economy where the 1% capture far too large a share of income for that to be healthy. Indeed, the income distribution issues may swamp the issues of overall growth of the economy due to labor shortage.
Third, the population of retirees should be partitioned into at least three components. Component A consists of those people who are incapable of working, either face-to-face or at-a-distance, because of disability that is physical or mental. Component B consists of people who are retired involuntarily. They lost their previous job for whatever reason, were unable to find a new job, and then left the labor market. They may then refer to themselves as retirees because of their age and for the dignity in the name, although their income and/or health care are inadequate in retirement. Component C consists of those people who retired voluntarily and, absent any large unanticipated expenditures since retirement, have adequate income and health benefits. With mandatory retirement ending 35 years ago, these categories are sufficient when considering the retiree population. General human capital is likely to be concentrated among retirees in component C, even after accounting for vintage effects and human capital depreciation. This means labor demand will be higher for those people in component C. Conversely, due to the income differentials, labor supply will be higher for people in component B. Both of these factors taken together present challenges in coming up with a meaningful approach or set of approaches to get greater labor force participation from retirees.
Fourth, the labor market is segmented and it may be better to consider each segment on a case by case basis. Labor shortage may impact some segments chronically, while other segments remain entirely unaffected. So it might be better to imagine segment specific strategies than one grand strategy for the entire market.
Last, the pandemic has given legitimacy to working online at a distance. That certainly was happening before the pandemic, but it was more exception than rule. In the new normal it might become a co-equal to performing work face-to-face at the workplace. For many retirees, in particular, this offers an avenue to participate in the labor market where otherwise they might not participate at all.
With the above questions and the various caveats, I think I've done a reasonable job of problem definition. Good luck to any and all who aim to provide a general solution. In what follows I have a far more modest aim. I will focus on my own writing and experiences that speak to the issues, which I hope will illuminate further questions that need answers. I know my preferences and capabilities may not generalize to the larger population (I'm a member of component C) but how they played out in my case might help in considering the broader issues.
About fifteen years ago I wrote a post, Second Careers and K-12. At the time I was 51 years old, with almost 10 years as an ed tech administrator in various positions on campus, and 16 years before that as a regular faculty member. The first 6 years as an ed tech administrator were terrific, though I confess that at first I thought I was under qualified, lacking prior administrative experience and not well educated in how people learn. I was able to make up for those shortcomings rather quickly and I learned the job suited my temperament and my talents. Further, most of the faculty who embraced ed tech then, the innovators and early adopters, did so by making clever adaptations of the technology in the courses they taught. I thought the real magic was in those adaptations rather than in the technology itself. And the small units I ran were able to help these faculty members do the experiments with technology that they wanted to pull off. Even after our mission changed, to bring these benefits to majority faculty members, we were able to encourage them to rethink their teaching in light of the technology, which is how I hoped adoption would occur. But that didn't last.
As usage increased there was a need to move to an "enterprise approach" and with that the small unit I ran became part of the larger technology organization. On the back end (servers, network, security, etc.) that was all for the good. But the culture of the larger organization focused on the technology itself and my unit, accordingly, became the tech support for the learning management system as its core activity. I had more visibility and was being paid more after the merger, but my heart wasn't in the work any more. So, in fact, when I wrote that piece about K-12 I had already arranged to take another position in the College of Business, to see if I could find what had attracted me to the work at the outset, as they were just getting going then in implementing ed tech in a strategic way. (They are going gangbusters now.) But I also realized that might not happen, in which case I would need to look for something else, ergo a second career. One thought then was that teaching in high school might rejuvenate me. Another thought was that public school education, in general, is an area where there is a chronic shortage of qualified teachers. Turnover is extremely high. Finding alternative sources for hiring new teachers seemed an imperative. The post then explored the nexus of my personal needs and the social need. It was a think aloud, as most of my posts are. It was not meant as a game plan for the rest of my career.
What I write in the following might be taken as a sequel to that post, regarding what I learned since I retired back in summer 2010, four years after I became an Associate Dean in the College of Business. I was slated to retire early, given that the job in the Business School only partially rejuvenated me work-wise. But the retirement itself was expedited by the budget crunch the university experienced after the burst of the housing bubble in 2008 and eventually the voluntary separation program that was instituted so the university could reduce the size of its payroll.
A good deal of this is what motivates a retiree particularly, what distinguishes work from play, and then further, what is the difference between work for pay versus work as a volunteer activity? These questions have answers that are different for a retiree than they are for someone in their 20s who is just starting out or someone in their late 30s or early 40s who is in mid-career. Here are some of the factors that matter for why the answers are different.
In the 1980s and early 1990s (before my older son was born) I played quite a bit of golf and developed "the bug" for it. I still have my bag and clubs from then and more recently would entertain myself by going to the driving range and hitting a bucket of balls. But, now I have pretty bad lower back pain from arthritis and bone spurs. The last time I went out to hit a small bucket (I think this was in summer 2019, but of that I'm not sure) I couldn't make it through even half of the balls. My back was really hurting and I had to stop. This is the sort of thing that keeps one from doing the activity. If I didn't experience pain like this, surely I would spend a lot of my leisure time playing golf.
Likewise, in the 1980s and through the 1990s I would go jogging, for the aerobic benefit and as a way to manage my weight. But near the end of the 1990s I started to have knee pain and around 9/11 I gave it up entirely. Foolish me, I didn't take up walking as a serious activity till many years later. As a result and as compensation for the stress I was feeling at work, my weight ballooned. Eventually I did take up walking. It didn't provide the aerobic benefit as far as I know, but it was regular exercise and gave good body motion. In the winter months, I rode the stationary bike in our exercise room. But that was far less satisfying. Eventually, we got rid of it and replaced it with both a treadmill and an elliptical. I discovered that with either of them, my arms would bear some of my weight so there was less pressure on my back and I didn't feel pain there. Eventually, the walking brought about the back pain and I made the switch to the treadmill, even in the warmer months. The elliptical was always a challenge for me, fodder for one of my rhymes but not something I could stick with for a long stretch of time. We do have a TV in the exercise room so I can watch (with subtitles) while I'm walking and break up the routine now and then by lifting light weights. I've found I can stick with this as long as I'm not hurting too much elsewhere, but doing it is more obligation than passion. The upshot is that I needed something else to really occupy me.
The Creative Attitude
About a year ago I wrote a post called, Is Now an Apt Time for College Students to Embrace The Creative Attitude? The paragraph below is from that post
The Creative Attitude is an essay by Maslow, well worth the read, and perhaps multiple reads. (I made a Word version of the article because the PDF version which is available from Proquest has a very light font that's hard to read.) I am going to appropriate Maslow's meaning for my own purposes. (I have sketched my own path toward the creative attitude in this post.) First, it means being completely absorbed in the present activity, so much so that everything else fades into the background. Second, this absorption is active, not passive. Being hypnotized is not what we're talking about here, nor is vegging out. Third, the creative attitude becomes a part of one's personal philosophy, so it is something to strive for in as many situations as possible. Most people can describe some circumstance that produces complete absorption for them. But then it is the particular environment, it would seem, that induces the state of absorption. (For many college students, playing video games achieves this effect.) Armed with the creative attitude, the individual can become absorbed in many different environments and it is the individual's fascination with the environment that drives the absorption. Fourth, this becomes something that the individual wants to do, in advance. Experiences of complete absorption are enjoyable, in retrospect, though while going through them the complete absorption precludes making a determination then and there of whether it is enjoyable. It is this retrospective preference for experiences of complete absorption, that provides the motive for embracing the creative attitude.
One of the reasons I liked to read Maslow is that he seemed to have found what makes me tick. Sometimes, writing blog posts like this is a way for me to embrace the creative attitude. Other times, it would happen when making a learning object in Excel that I would use in my teaching. Most instructors wouldn't think to do this sort of thing and would rather use publisher-supplied materials. I liked making my own as there was challenge and art in doing so and it engaged me totally, most of the time. Of course, nothing is ever so pure and the sense of full engagement is lost when I get stuck, such as what I wrote about here in making a homework assignment in Excel on the economics of bargaining, having experienced getting past the being stuck stage and doing so on multiple occasions. I do look forward to these episodes of complete absorption and have been able to make it my raison d'être. Sometimes reading provides this feeling. That happens more with fiction, though in the last few years I've noticed that it takes quite a while for me to get into the book.
I do also want to make a bow to James Thurber's Walter Mitty. While it's true that when I first started to write a blog I had so much backlogged experience to write about that it felt as if the words just flowed out of me with no effort whatsoever, nowadays that is no longer true. Prewriting is necessary. And for me, prewriting is a lot like daydreaming; maybe they are one and the same. There is a bit of a puzzle here. You have to be doing something when you're prewriting. I noticed as a teenager that I liked to wash the dishes (though I was inherently lazy about housework) because the activity was sufficiently autonomous that I could do my imagining simultaneously. (I wasn't writing then, but I was being like Walter Mitty.) Now I apparently waste a lot of time on the computer screen (mainly solitaire but some Sudoku as well) where there is likewise enough autonomy in that to allow the prewriting to happen. But the reality is I'm also stuck with some regularity and then I'm prone to procrastinate. I waste time then that is purely dissipative. Nothing comes from it at all. And sometimes I can't tell which I'm doing. This is more for writing the blog posts than doing work which is externally imposed and may have a deadline. I get down to business then more quickly, the obligation to others does provide an effective incentive. Yet there are limits to that.
Play Or Work, Which Is It?
I like this quote:
You've achieved success in your field when you don't know whether what you're doing is work or play.