Three bits of information prompted these thoughts: First, I heard the sad story of a young, affiliate faculty member and mother, working part time in three universities, widely spaced on the landscape. She is under-paid and under-recognized at work, and over-worked in both work and home settings, seriously undermining her morale and enthusiasm. Second, I considered both my own comfortable semi-retired situation as a visiting scholar at one university, rather comparable in some respects to an affiliate faculty member, without pay; and my husband’s similar comfortable, now also unpaid affiliate position. Third, I’m reading a book entitled Composing a Further Life, by Mary Catherine Bateson, a sort of sequel to her earlier book, Composing a Life.
In both books, Bateson uses long, indepth interviews with a small number of people to reveal the variation in ways that people are making and have made peace and satisfaction within their lives as they age. In the earlier book, she follows the lives of a number of successful women, most of whom have had their own careers and plans disrupted, sometimes repeatedly, by career-dictated moves of their husbands. She uses the patchwork quilt as an analogy for the creative ways these women have crafted useful and successful lives, despite (perhaps even because of) these interruptions. In the more recent book, she examines by similar methods the lives of a variety of people later in life. She first proposes that we recognize a significant global demographic shift with wide-ranging repercussions, due to our longer lifespan. Where in the past we recognized three stages—childhood, adulthood, and old age—she proposes that we now have a fourth stage, which she called ‘adulthood II’, characterized by ‘active wisdom’. In this later book, she uses the analogy of adding a room on a house. The added room does more than simply add to an intact structure; rather its addition results in changes in the uses of all the other rooms in the house. Just so, she argues, the addition of this fourth stage, adulthood II, changes the ways that we structure and value the other stages and elements in our lives.
While reading this book, I’ve been cogitating on the ubiquity of affiliate faculty positions in the US and on their differential impacts, depending on the life stage of the individual so categorized. Although an affiliate position could, in theory, be a perfect solution for a parent of a young child, in fact, as currently structured this situation is typically oppressive and unfair. For young people, just beginning their work lives, in need of recognition, income and time, an affiliate faculty position may be better than nothing, but it is usually in no way ideal. If the person has a young child or children, the low rate of pay is likely to do little more than pay for childcare and possibly transport. The need to show continuing academic/professional involvement on one’s resume provides a powerful incentive to accept such employment, despite the common lack of financial profit, recognition, and other evidence of appreciation where one works. Compounding this adverse situation is the felt need to ‘prove’ one’s commitment to one’s profession. The academic world (indeed, society in general) does not acknowledge the value of childcare, the socialization of children, seeing rather any time devoted to this truly life-sustaining activity, as proof that one is not committed to one’s profession.
If one is in adulthood II (and financially sufficiently secure) however, an affiliate position may indeed be the perfect solution. Older adults typically have less need of money—-they may have already furnished and own their home, have a paid off car, have adult children who take care of themselves, and have fewer work-related expenses. At the same time, older adults have less energy than is ideal in a full time job. Still, they are likely to want to continue contributing the knowledge and experience they have gained over what was once a lifetime (an age of ‘three score and ten’). Under such conditions, an affiliate position can provide a chance to continue contributing, at an appropriately reduced rate, while slowly adapting to eventual full retirement.
In anthropology, a fair amount has been written since 1965 about the ‘image of limited good’ (introduced by George Foster). This concept, common in many cultures, postulates that there is a certain amount of ‘good stuff’ out there, that whatever you get is lost to me, and whatever I get is lost to you. There are indeed situations like that. If I take the last piece of pie, you can’t have it. However, in my own view, this concept is applied far too widely (e.g., with regard to faculty positions at universities). Knowledge, universities’ claim to fame, is not like pie (discussed fully in Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of the Mind). One can certainly argue, as many have done, that my providing free labour at a university is taking an opportunity away from a young person (even without my being paid). I agree that the way universities are currently structured, this can well be the case. But this kind of argument (and reality) is based on the ‘limited good’ notion, which we should not be applying to universities. Surely there is more need for people who can teach* young people than is currently supplied by our university systems. Surely there is sufficient need in the world for input and sharing from both the old and the young.
I struggle with (at least) three difficult questions in this regard—both impinging on my own life and the lives of people I love:
> How can we allow these aging purveyors of ‘active wisdom’ the opportunity to continue contributing their experience and knowledge—a process that is currently hindered by both a system based on the image of limited good and the ageism we know exists?
> How can we develop systems that adequately compensate and recognize young professionals, systems that do not oppress those whose professional needs are so much greater and so different from those of the aging?
> How can we facilitate societal recognition of the vital role of enculturation of the young (and care of the truly elderly), in such a way that both men and women can find a meaningful work-life balance that adequately accomplishes such goals while not interfering with their prestige and future opportunities in their profession?
I do not have the answers to these questions; but I think we need to be seriously considering how to answer them—probably including tearing down conceptual barriers like the image of limited good, which can freeze our thinking in tired old pathways inappropriate for our new conditions. I want us to be creating a world in which young parents can enjoy and care for their children at the same time that they are making reasonable progress in their work lives; a world in which those growing old but not yet truly infirm can make beneficial use of what wisdom and experience they have garnered over the decades. I have been fortunate myself in being able to remain active at a suitably reduced level, but I know many whose knowledge and skills are sitting on a shelf, unrecognized and unappreciated—-what a waste!
*As I write these words, I am reminded of Tania Li’s fascinating 2007 book, The Will to Improve. In this book, Li shows how our ‘will to improve’ the conditions of others has led to all sorts of problems (in Indonesia). One can see ‘teaching’ as motivated by such a ‘will’—but I’m imagining a situation in which what we have called teaching is really the process of creating contexts and conditions in which others can learn most effectively, a sharing of experience. The problem with our will to improve, comes, in my view, when we want to improve others, according to our own views of what they need.