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A Perfect Storm: Gen X and Today's Academic Culture

"Anti-family bias in policies and expectations rules out the option many women would choose and most men follow: a serious scholarly career that's compatible with family."


Anne Gallaher and Dr. Cathy Trower

“The university is the site of a perfect storm of 21st-century expectations and medieval bureaucracy.”David D. Perlmutter, The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 11, 2008

Sea change is coming. Retirements and growing enrollments mean colleges and universities will need to hire new faculty in the next 8 to 10 years. Where will the talent come from? With all the choices available, will the best and brightest be attracted to an academic career?

Demands on junior faculty have increased in recent decades. Young people’s expectations have shifted in the opposite direction; they fully expect a career and a life, with flexibility for both parents to spend time with the kids. Unless universities adapt, they may lose potential candidates to the private sector.

Dr. Cathy Trower and Anne Gallagher, director and assistant director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) based at Harvard University MA, surveyed pre-tenure faculty at nearly 80 schools about their satisfaction and concerns. They spoke at the College & University Work/Family Association (CUWFA) conference at Chapel Hill NC in March.

Quality of life is right up there with salary as a job choice consideration for young scholars today. Colleges ignore it at their peril. Faculty excellence is essential to a university’s mission of teaching and research.

Moreover, failure to retain faculty is expensive. Searches cost money. Turnover means lost productivity; new faculty need time to settle in.

But survey responses raise serious doubts about whether they’ll stay in their jobs:

  • I love my job but I’m not sure I could find a way to perform my job at the expected level and keep sustainable hours.
  • My work is so demanding that I no longer am able to get exercise, get sufficient sleep, spend enough time with my family or even experience joy in anything most days.
  • The workload is unreasonable for faculty who wish to maintain activity in a research program while raising small children.
  • I too often sacrifice my own health for job performance. I love everything about what I do, but the pace is not compatible with healthy living.
  • As a new mother, I’m having a tough time. Even with stop the clock I still feel like I need to be spending every single available minute working… I think the only way I may be able to find balance is to just quit working.

Generational cultures

Today’s academic workload would be hard on anyone. Once upon a time professors were men with stay-at-home wives. Then work increased and families changed.

Along comes Generation X, born since 1960 and raised on Sesame Street. Now we’re looking at Generation Y, which Trower calls “Gen X on steroids.” Born since 1980, they grew up with iPods. High-skilled and high-maintenance, they expect to have choices—and they do. They’re more likely to start their own business than take a job encumbered by bureaucracy.

COACHE survey results are from junior faculty already in place, mostly Gen Xers. The tensions that show in their responses will only increase with Gen Y in the years ahead.

Three generational cultures collide on campus. Particularly at large research universities, the system still in place was built by traditionalists born in 1942 or earlier. They value loyalty, expect a chain of command, and work to build a legacy. By now they’re over 65 and retired or approaching it.

Tenured faculty is made up largely of baby boomers, born 1943-1960. They’re optimists who work long hours to build stellar careers and rake in money. Two-career marriages are common … and stressful. Many are divorced.

Untenured assistant professors today come from Generation X, born 1961-1981. They’re skeptical and expect to be in charge of themselves. If they don’t like it, they’ll leave. While the baby boomers want more money, Gen Xers want more time. The older generation’s culture of paying your dues is not for them.

Among other differences:

Hierarchy. Traditionalists like a top-down organizational structure and boomers accept it. Gen X prefers a flat one.

Job changing. For traditionalists, changing jobs carries a stigma. For boomers it’s a setback on the career ladder. Gen Xers expect to change jobs again and again; it’s the only way to be where they want.

Motivation. Traditionalists are motivated by a job well done. Baby boomers work for money, title and promotion. For Gen X the motive is self-fulfillment, freedom and fun—leaving older folks aghast or scratching their heads.

Performance review. If no one’s yelling, a traditionalist thinks all is well. Baby-boomers want a well-documented annual evaluation. Gen X wants constant feedback: “Sorry to interrupt again: How am I doing?”

Work hours. Traditionalists think it’s prudent to put in the required hours and wonder who’ll do the work if flextime creeps in. Boomers hope long hours will pay off in money and promotions. Gen X says, get a life!

What Gen X wants

Earlier generations applied for jobs in the hope making an impression and getting an offer. Gen X comes in with demands, which will increase as Gen Y fills the applicant pools. “The academy is not prepared for it,” Trower said.

Their demands fuel the stereotype that post-boomer generations are “all about me,” but that’s not quite it. For the new generations, work is worth doing for emotional rewards as much as for intellectual or financial ones. They want to give back. They bring heart and soul along with well-trained brains. They don’t care so much about the mix of paid and volunteer activity as whether they’re doing something worthwhile. One young woman spoke of going to law school so she could do pro bono legal work.

They want clarity and transparency, an area where the academy hasn’t excelled. They want their performance reviews in writing. They want to find criteria spelled out online, accessible with one click.

They care about community and collegiality, making connections across campus for interdisciplinary ventures. Instead they find closed doors and departmental silos. Women who entered computer science to solve problems but found themselves programming instead did not hesitate to get out of the field. They want mentors, including mentors across difference. They see diversity as a positive force and prefer places that hire for it.

They want to level the playing field, which is still tilted by gender bias. The pipeline has plenty of women but they leak from it at appalling rates. They’re 27% less likely than men to advance from assistant to associate professor and then 20% less likely to move up to full professor.

Family and balance

Family affects the leaky pipeline too. Among PhD recipients, married women are 21% less likely than single women to enter a tenure-track position. Women with babies are 28% less likely to do so than women without them.

It’s not clear how much that’s a matter of hiring bias and how much it’s women’s choices. Perhaps that’s not a true distinction. Anti-family bias in policies and expectations rules out the option many women would choose and most men follow: a serious scholarly career that’s compatible with family.

Gen Xers start their families late in life. Once they have one, family matters. A lot of them grew up as latchkey kids in broken homes. That’s not what they want for their children.

Still, they’re in two-career couples; reverting to the 1950s isn’t an option. Instead they see the solution in flexibility and institutional support to let both parents balance home and campus responsibilities.

On the COACHE survey, an open-ended final question asked pre-tenure faculty to name the number one thing their college or university could do to improve the workplace. Work/family balance came in third at 16.7%, after research support (19.2%) and pay (17.9%). Fourth was an upper limit on teaching (11.3%), which could allow more time for family, research or both.

Some wrote:

  • The college should either provide better support for daycare or at least acknowledge the fact that some junior faculty may not accomplish as much as others because of family obligations.
  • Help juniors achieve a healthier balance between personal and professional life.
  • Make a stronger commitment to making tenure-track job responsibilities compatible with raising children/taking care of adult dependents.

Women still carry most of the home responsibilities in most two-parent households. One respondent commented that men feel so good about themselves when they pick a child up from soccer, because they compare their involvement with that of their fathers—not with their wives.

Another noted that it’s not easy to be a working mom, or a working dad either. In fact, men were even less likely than women to agree with the statement, “My school does what it can to make childbearing and childcare a success.”

Of all 50 items respondents rated, that statement got the lowest score in agreement overall.

Transforming the culture

Tempting as it is to whine that they don’t have a work ethic, that’s the pool you’ll be hiring from. Gen Xers have skills and options. And their ethic is as strong as earlier generations; it’s just oriented less toward the hours they put in and more toward the value they produce.

So the question isn’t whether these are the faculty you want but how you’re going to attract the best of them. That will require transforming academic culture. The gap Perlmutter noted between medieval bureaucracy and 21st-century expectations is so deep that nothing less will do.

Lists of family-friendly policies abound. Survey responses mentioned childcare, spousal hiring, personal leave, stopping the clock, course release for newcomers and an end to mandatory meetings after 5 p.m. Those are only the beginning. So long as the culture assumes that family detracts from productivity, faculty avoid using family benefits for fear of incurring bias.

Is academic transformation an oxymoron? As chancellor of the University of California Berkeley, Clark Kerr said in 1982, “The status quo is the only solution that cannot be vetoed.” Transforming the culture must be intentional and pervasive, working over time to change the entire school.

Organizational culture is a pattern of shared assumptions that’s widely accepted and taught to new members as they join. It occurs at three levels: artifacts (visible structures and practices), stated values and underlying assumptions.

The artifact level considers buildings and policies. When Trower was a senior administrator at Johns Hopkins University MD, they had no restrooms for women. Most of our progress to date has been at the artifact level, which just barely scratches the surface.

Stated values are what people say they believe. Colleges have the jargon right. The trouble comes when stated values aren’t matched by the unconscious underlying assumptions that ultimately determine what happens. Assumptions such as “a young married woman is just going to have a kid,” or that “a gap in her resume means she did” are unfair.

Until underlying assumptions catch up with stated values, the reward structure won’t either.

For example:

We say we value teaching but promotion depends on research. An MIT faculty member’s teaching award was held against her at tenure time.

We say we value diversity and minorities but diversity or minority research is considered soft.

We say we like community engagement but it doesn’t help toward tenure.

We say we like interdisciplinary collaboration but we dwell in silos and promote competition.

We say we’re for academic freedom but the practice is, “don’t rock the boat.”

Cultural change starts at the top, with deans and department chairs. Changes must happen at all three levels.

Otherwise Gen Xers will see right through you. They aren’t dumb. They know what they want and if you don’t offer it, you’re going to lose them to employers who do.

Sarah Gibbard Cook

To contact Dr. Cathy Trower or Anne Gallagher at the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE):
http://www.coache.org or
617.384.7873

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