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Happy retirement! Reflections on public policy and equity in the workplace

The recent amendments to the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities Act (“the Act”) did not initially seem to have an impact on my working life. As per Bill 100, the “omnibus budget bill,” which had first reading last April, Schedule 39 would revise the Act as follows:

The Schedule also adds a new section 18 to provide authority for the Minister to make regulations governing the reduction, limitation and alteration of compensation due to certain individuals.

Although I plan to work past age 65, I don’t intend to be on the job beyond age 71. However, as the public discussion related to this amendment began to evolve, I learned that government officials had raised the possibility of mandatory retirement at 65 for faculty members.

Then these changes hit home.

As a relatively new academic librarian, I am now a member of my campus faculty association. So any changes in the retirement age of faculty might very well have a direct impact on when I retire. I started working full-time at my institution at age 43 and became an academic librarian at age 59. I’d already looked at my projected pension and had decided that I would work at least another seven years after 65 (my health and quality of work life permitting) because these extra years could improve my retirement income. Suddenly, this opportunity for a more financially secure retirement seemed threatened.

And, beyond the personal implications, I wondered about the equity of this change. The profession of librarianship is dominated by women, who, historically, have been paid less and have had fewer opportunities for advancement than their male colleagues. Therefore, forcing women to retire earlier than they might want to or need to is problematic.

To explore this issue further, I’ve asked Merridee Bujaki (co-director of the Centre of Research and Education on Women and Work [CREWW], Carleton University) and Peter Hajnal (a former academic librarian and a fellow of Senior College and research associate, Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy) to share their thoughts on retirement, in general, and mandatory retirement, in particular. 

Here’s what they are thinking.

Martha Attridge Bufton, Editor-in-Chief, Open Shelf

Peter Hajnal 

What is mandatory retirement and is it currently in force in Canada and Ontario?

My layman’s understanding of mandatory retirement is that it is an age limitation of employment, enforced either by legislation or by employee practices. In Canada, age 65 was the traditional retirement age, but I believe that this limit is no longer applicable. Certain employers, notably universities, abolished mandatory retirement some years ago, at least for academic staff. Some other employers have done so too. Business owners probably set their own rules; some professionals choose to continue working till it is no longer possible. For example, senators have an age limit of 75, whereas star athletes in certain sports “retire” in their late 20s or 30s.

As a quick exercise, I looked at Wikipedia and found this:

Typically, mandatory retirement is justified by the argument that certain occupations are either too dangerous (military personnel) or require high levels of physical and mental skill (air traffic controllers, airline pilots). Most rely on the notion that a worker’s productivity declines significantly after age 70, and the mandatory retirement is the employer’s way to avoid reduced productivity.[1] However, since the age at which retirement is mandated is often somewhat arbitrary and not based upon an actual physical evaluation of an individual person, many view the practice as a form of age discrimination, or ageism.

I am not familiar enough with proposed policies for academic librarians. However, many librarians have an important teaching function. In some cases, such as my own, formal teaching and intensive research, and librarianship are not mutually exclusive. For many years while working as an academic librarian, I was also an adjunct faculty member offering formal graduate credit courses at the university. There are other colleagues with similar experience.

What are the pros and cons of mandatory retirement? 

Pros and cons for whom? The employer or the employee?

Mandatory retirement is probably not equitable.

Academic faculty and librarians can offer professionalism and much experience that they are able and willing to use after retirement, to the benefit of their students, colleagues and institutions. On the other hand, prolonged “over age” employment does impact new faculty and librarians waiting for an opportunity. The institutions, on their part, can save money when employing younger faculty and librarians at lower salaries. The obverse side is that there is an increasing tendency to offer shorter-term employment, with little prospect of advancement or tenure. This is unhealthy socially and economically.

I suppose an ideal middle way would be to continue to take advantage of what experience people can offer but also to give younger people a chance. There are ways to achieve this; for example, employing “over age” people on a part-time and contract basis so they can pass on their knowledge.

Is mandatory retirement equitable?

Mandatory retirement is probably not equitable. I imagine it may have different implications for men and women. In some countries, the retirement age varies by gender. I think that, in Russia, retirement comes earlier for women than for men, a fact which is curious given the longer life expectancy of women. On the other hand, women often have to take time off work for maternity leave and then to care for young children, so it seems more equitable to compensate women accordingly.  

Note that in some countries, including Canada, people often advocate for a later retirement age, while in some other countries, notably France, there were street demonstrations when the government tried to raise the retirement age. These variations are probably due to cultural and sociological differences.

How could active retirement be of benefit?

Active retirement can be thought of as not allowing our mind and body to atrophy. Many people engage in their hobbies, sometimes quite different from what they did when working. Others travel, their funds permitting. Still, others continue to engage intellectually, researching, teaching, writing. A good example of continued involvement is our Senior College at the University of Toronto (for retired faculty and librarians). The college developed a program of activities ranging from weekly lectures on a widely interdisciplinary basis, to monthly colloquia exploring selected topics in greater depth, including a book club, excursions, and so forth.

In the library field, associations of retired librarians are useful for continued activities and social exposure. The Ex Libris Association is a case in point. Health and other concerns can, of course, curtail the range of activities older retirees can participate in. But it is desirable to be as active as possible.


Merridee Bujaki

What is mandatory retirement and is it currently in force in Canada and Ontario?

My understanding is that mandatory retirement is a statutory regulation to cease working at a given age. This legal requirement was abolished in Ontario in 2006 and in 2011 at the federal level. So it doesn’t exist here in Canada. However, I understand that some employees may still be forced to retire at a given age. For example, I understand that partners in an accounting firm can be required to retire at 60.

What are the pros and cons of mandatory retirement? 

Well, a “pro” could be that mandatory retirement allows for a rejuvenation of the workplacewe could see renewal as older employees leave and young people come in to an organization or a profession. That’s good for employers because younger employees are less costly: One or two young employees could be hired for the cost of a more senior worker. 

However, I see several downsides. One, mandatory retirement has been used in some workplaces as a strategy for solving performance issues—managers have just waited out those employees who aren’t performing at the expected level. So organizations haven’t put in place the policies or procedures to support people whose work needs improvement and/or for whom it is time to move along. This form of performance management does create the potential for some people to stay in a job beyond the point when they are doing their best work or when their health still allows them to make a strong contribution.

Two, mandatory retirement disadvantages those employees doing intellectual work and those employees who start their careers late(r). If you are engaged in intellectual work, your best ideas are built upon a career’s progression. The idea that we have all of our best ideas at the beginning of our careers and then our creativity fades away is not appropriate.

In my own case, it’s been over the last five years that, I think, I have really known how to do the job of being a professor. I can see connections and can do the kind of interdisciplinary work that I could not in the first few years of my career.

And I’ve arrived at this point, in part because, after 25 years as an academic, I now have a publishing career; I’ve built strong professional networks; and my “hands on” family commitments are out of the way. I believe that there is a strong motivation for older workers to be creative and innovative because they do not have to balance or integrate work/family commitments as they did when they were younger. I am actually thinking that I could work longer (perhaps to age 71), and why not, if I am having fun and doing creative work? So mandatory retirement would be a “con” for me and for my profession.

Moreover, mandatory retirement is problematic if someone has begun their career relatively late. Many academics take longer to finish their education, and female academics often go straight into child-rearing and   -bearing after finishing their education, an interruption that has financial implications. 

I started my first academic job in my 30s, so, unlike those workers who enter the paid workforce in their 20s, I have not had as many years to build up to entitlement to CPP and other pension plans, such as a workplace pension and/or contributing to an RRSP. I was still paying off student loans when my kids started going to university.

And now, I know that some colleagues must do five or six years of post-doctoral employment before landing a tenure-track position. So they are still part of a contingent workforce for 10 or 12 years before they find stable academic work.

Is mandatory retirement equitable?

I do see many downsides to mandatory retirement for women. In fact, I think we women face a double whammy: A late, and often interrupted, career start, and greater longevity. As a result, there is a very real risk that women will be less well off in their retirement (if not more impoverished) than men. In my case, changing employers and careers (I started my work life as an accountant) had major implications for my pension income.

There is a very real risk that women will be less well off in retirement than men.

As I’ve mentioned, a late start in the workforce has an impact on our ability to generate retirement income, a circumstance which can be compounded if we interrupt our working lives to have and raise children. As a result, we progress slowly, make less and thus save less.

Plus, women live longer than men, so not only do we tend to accumulate less wealth but we may also outlive our savings at a time when our health might very well be declining. 

How could active retirement be of benefit?

Peter’s definition of active retirement makes sense to me. I have retired colleagues who continue to teach, and I’ve seen many others who serve on committees, supervise students they want to continue to support, and sit on editorial boards. Others may take the time to write a book that captures some of their acquired knowledge, a project that might not have been as appropriate or as well-rewarded in their discipline earlier in their career. And there’s even the possibility of pursuing more education. I’ve thought about doing undergrad degrees in areas I would just love to explore.

The caveat to this form of retirement is that it’s possible to be active only if our health and our retirement income allow us to be. I see a difference between “young” seniors (65 to 80 years of age) and those who are “older” (over 80). There are lots of seniors who are healthy and are very engaged and do a lot of volunteer work in their communities so they can continue to contribute to the broader society. But health concerns could intervene, as could the need to go out and supplement your retirement income. And, of course, social services (e.g., pensions, access to libraries, etc.) are an important prerequisite for having an active retirement.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash (money)
Photo by Michelle Spollen on
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Merridee Bujaki is a Full Professor of Accounting at the Sprott School of Business, Carleton University. Merridee’s research interests have addressed voluntary corporate reporting by Canadian publicly traded corporations, the accounting history of the construction of the Rideau Canal, and the careers of public accountants. More recently, she has been researching the careers of women academics, women immigrant entrepreneurs, the Board diversity disclosures by Canadian public companies, and the mental health of accounting professionals. 

Peter Hajnal is a Fellow of Senior College and Research Associate, Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, University of Toronto. Before his retirement, he was Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Information, University of Toronto, for 11 years. He also served as librarian for 25 years at the University of Toronto and 10 years at the United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld Library, in New York.  

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