From Chronicle Vitae:
Ask Debra Leigh Scott how she plans to make ends meet after her teaching career is over, and her answer is direct. “Suicide,” she says, “is my retirement plan.”
Of course, she doesn’t want to kill herself. But there might come a time, she says, when ending her life would be the only “dignified” escape from the indignities of growing old with no safety net.
Scott, an artist who just turned 60, is an adjunct professor teaching in Temple University’s intellectual-heritage program. She’s a member of the first generation of a relatively new breed of adjunct: the teacher who wanted to become a full-time professor but never got the opportunity. A divorced mother of two grown children, she has now been teaching for over 25 years, cobbling together different types of jobs to scrape by. She got beaten down by the recession, lost several jobs and her home, and she’s used what little savings she had to stay afloat.
Though she knows how to “bend a nickel in five directions,” Scott hasn’t been able to put any money aside for retirement. Her decision to pursue an academic career has required that she live as simply and frugally as possible, without the ability to help launch her children into their adult lives.
“I couldn’t help them with tuition. My son has chosen to leave college and is working full time, and my daughter has a six-figure debt that she’ll be paying in her 40s,” Scott says. “So you could say that they’ve already paid for my life choices.”
Scott is just one of an untold number of graying adjunct professors for whom retirement is not a time to look forward to but a thing to fear. Since the recession, adjuncts are hardly the only ones worrying about retirement. But professors who serve on a temporary or at-will basis can spend a lifetime working with no upward mobility and no ability to amass savings. The retirement-planning structure that benefits tenured professors doesn’t work for adjuncts, they say, and their colleges often leave them on their own when it comes to their post-teaching security.
Over the past few months, I’ve talked with a number of adjuncts in their 60s. Many of them say they don’t know how they will survive if they’re too old to teach, if they get sick, or if their institutions decide not to renew their contracts. Many believe they’ll never be able to retire.
“Unless you have a spouse or partner, you’re looking at dire poverty in old age,” says Scott. “In addition to poverty, you’re looking at getting no additional work because of your age, or you’re looking at dropping dead in the classroom.”