Study: (all but) retirees feel abandoned
MAASTRICHT. Begging to be allowed to keep one’s e-mail address and UM Card, no form of support on the road to retirement, sometimes not even a farewell, and then the feeling that you are no longer part of the UM family. Retired and almost retired scientists often feel abandoned by Maastricht University. This became clear in a study carried out by professor Aagje Swinnen and three junior researchers into the experiences of the over-66 immediately prior to and after they retire.
It feels like a smack in the face. On the first day of your retirement, your e-mail address disappears, your UM Card no longer works and your list of scientific publications vanishes from the UM website. Someone referred to it as “administrative death.” Many find this offensive. Just like having to beg the powers that be to be allowed to keep your e-mail address, which is a researcher’s lifeline to colleagues; a ritual that repeats itself every two years through sheer necessity because an extension is only valid for a limited period of time. Professors, however, can usually arrange this more easily than assistant professors or (senior) lecturers.
Also, from day one of their retirement, they are deprived of the latest university news, the weekly UM e-mail no longer appears in their mailbox, even if they could hang on to their account. There is complete incomprehension: why is so much organised for former students while for former employees it is “out of sight, out of mind”? It could be done differently, as one participant sees it: his wife received a Christmas gift from her employer every year after her 65th birthday.
Aagje Swinnen, professor of Aging Studies, and three junior researchers, Hadewych Honné, Ilya Malafei and Mara Stiber, interviewed 26 (almost) retired researchers: seven women, nine men, from lecturer to professor, spread across the faculties. This was done in focus groups and with the support of the UM’s Diversity and Inclusivity Office and the Centre for Gender and Diversity. The aim was to contribute to the development of a policy regarding retirement.
Why only academics? “I am an academic myself and know that literature best. It was a pragmatic consideration, I had limited resources and had to make a choice. Support staff is of course just as important.”
The 26 interviewees belong mostly to the generation that built up the university and have fond memories of that pioneering phase, when the UM was a world “full of possibilities and aspirations”. Many participants, as Swinnen and her colleagues write in ‘Care is what you miss from the organisation’: Experiences of pre- and post-retirement academic staff at Maastricht University, identify themselves with their scientific work. They enjoy their contact with colleagues, with the students, and cherish their contribution – through their research and education – to society. It saddened them to see the advance of bureaucracy over the past decades, with its rules and regulations that eroded their autonomy considerably. Just like the emphasis on quantity in research, (i.e. the number of publications), instead of quality. It has a negative effect on the quality of education and research, but also on the well-being of staff.
For the majority, their own well-being received a blow with their (approaching) retirement. One speaks of a “mourning process”, from the loss of a social role, number two feels that he has to leave because people were of the opinion that he “couldn’t or wouldn’t keep up with new developments”. But don’t misunderstand them: they all recognise the necessity of not hanging on needlessly and realise that they have to hand over their tasks to younger colleagues, but that should be done in consultation with them, their boss and HR advisor.
Thanks for your contribution
Whatever way they left, there was not much care and empathy from the UM. “I was unpleasantly surprised that there was absolutely no policy. There wasn’t even an exit interview, there was no official ending.” Further along in the report someone else says: “I received a letter from the university in February, March, and again in September, they were almost identical, stating that you had to put your affairs in order, also with pension fund ABP. For the rest, there was one sentence, ‘thank you for your contribution’. That was it. If it is like that everywhere, then that is rather bad, to be honest.” Many participants are also negative about HR: “The HR department used to be slightly more separate from the faculties and that made the HR advisers more independent. That is different now. The person didn’t listen to me at all, only to my boss.” And: “I had a discussion with HR to see if I could stay on longer. Nothing, absolutely nothing was possible.”
Cream on the cake
And then there is the final day: a wonderful farewell is an important “transition ritual”, Swinnen and her colleagues write. The differences appear to be tremendous: one gets a big party paid for by the faculty – such as other professors giving farewell speeches – another person leaves to the beat of their own heart or after a cup of coffee with colleagues. The interviewees feel that those in charge should consult with future retirees whether they want to celebrate their farewell, and if they do, how. Exactly because it can be the “cream on the cake”, as someone explained, and you can’t put a bad farewell to rights.
We don’t want to see you here anymore
Whether they retired with reluctance or full of conviction, they all feel that older academics still have a lot to offer. If you let them go, you lose a wealth of experience, knowledge and skills. “One retired colleague had good ideas, was still very involved in projects, but he met with unfriendly treatment: ‘we no longer wish to see you here’, was the message.”
The motto is, provide a tailor-made approach: one person may benefit from a small research position after retirement, or a mentorship or other teaching role, another may do better with a slow reduction of the number of working days before retirement, closing the door completely after the farewell. Don’t see the elderly as a burden, they said, but as a help. Most of them know when it is time to take a step back. And, as they say themselves, supported by scientific research: they are no more and no less rigid and averse to new things than younger generations. They don’t dig their heels in with every new plan, even though this is often thought.
UM take care
The most important conclusion of the study is: pay attention to the employees’ wishes, before their imminent retirement and afterwards. Talk to them, listen to what they need, give various options because not everyone is the same, be transparent, honour institutional memory and see to it that everyone gets to keep his/her e-mail address and other facilities. In short: UM take care.
The UM as an age-friendly university
Rector Rianne Letschert signed the ten principles for an age-friendly university in March 2018, and thus the UM became the first continental European university to be part of the Age-Friendly University (UFA) Global Network. Such a university is aware of the needs and wishes of retired and senior employees. But also ensures that the various generations of students and employees work together and realise what values each phase in life holds.
That age-friendly university will not come about without a reverse in culture, knows Aagje Swinnen, professor of Aging Studies at the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, because “like most higher education institutions, Maastricht University is mainly focussed on the development of young people”.