TIAA-CREF and the Superannuated Professor

Last week I met with a TIAA-CREF “wealth management counselor.” The good news . . . I’m not as retirement poor as I thought. The less good news . . . I will be working for the next four years in order to reach my retirement “goal.” My friend Marian reminds me that those of us who began academic careers in mid-life have a lot of catching up to do!

Prepping for my wealth management meeting got me thinking about TIAA-CREF, where it came from, why an account dedicated to college teachers, how is it part of a history of retirement. Of course, as college teachers we now have many options for retirement savings. When I hired on as an assistant professor, the state pension system or this private company were my only choices for investing the university’s “retirement benefits.” We were strongly advised to choose TIAA-CREF and I did so without giving it much thought. After all, the TIAA account was portable, and pre-tenure insecurity had already kicked in. What if, god forbid, I did not get tenure and had to find another job? What would happen to a Virginia state pension?? So, I invested my future in this company about which I knew very little, and I remain invested there as I move toward retirement and begin to restructure finances to create income after income stops.

A cursory search for a history of TIAA-CREF turned up a skimpy bibliography. But one book, William Graebner’s History of Retirement,* describes the beginnings. Graebner is a cynic, distrustful of motives couched as humanitarian – he positions pensions as part of the early twentieth century drive to improve workforce efficiency. Older workers, it seemed to efficiency experts, could not keep up with the young in the fast-paced, mechanized modern world. Replacing them made good economic sense to profit-driven industrialists. As Graebner saw it, retirement was rarely conceptualized as a way to alleviate the physical burdens of growing older, though proponents may have resorted to that rhetoric at times. More often the rhetoric was akin to that spouted by the physician, William Osler. “I have two fixed ideas,” he told an audience of medical men in 1905. “The first is the comparative uselessness of men above forty years of age. . . .[The second] is the uselessness of men above sixty years of age, and the incalculable benefit it would be in commercial, political, and in professional life, if as a matter of course, men stopped work at this age. . . .” More than a decade earlier Osler had described the changes related to aging as a “loss of mental elasticity,” and “ an inability to adapt oneself to an altered intellectual environment.” “Superannuated” was yet another descriptive term for 60-year-olds in the workforce. (Graebner quotes Osler in the book’s first chapter.)

Superannuated, a new derogatory for “old.” Obsolete, unable to adapt to new ideas and new technology because of …age! (Note to self: explore “Luminosity,” the app designed for brain training, rapid perception, attention, focus, and quick decision making based on the “science of neuroplasticity.” Train my brain for $6.95/month, surely a bargain to prevent being seen as superannuated.)

If older workers were “useless,” as Osler charged, the problem became how to rid the workforce of the “superannuated.” The answer was never to adapt the work place to accommodate the life cycle (witness here, too, the tepid results of more recent efforts to provide women and men in the US with maternity leave, yet another stage of life). Instead the solution to the problem was “superannuation,” or retirement with a pension that paid older workers to leave the workforce and barred them from reentering. In the early twentieth century different industries tried different systems to create a pension system to retire older workers, with the various paths described in Graebner’s account culminating in the Social Security Act of the 1930s (designed as a tool to combat unemployment of the young according to Graebner). TIAA-CREF was one of those roads, for a specific group of superannuated workers – the college professor.

TIAA-CREF began as a post-retirement project of the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, the same Carnegie who busted unions at his steel plants then funded local libraries and other assorted humanitarian endeavors to save his soul before he died. One of these projects was an endowment that would fund college retirement pensions. I’ve always liked teaching about Andrew Carnegie, a bundle of contradictions who captured well the conflicting mentalities of the late nineteenth century. Who knew he saw himself as a benefactor of poorly paid college professors? In fact, Carnegie thought professors were so poorly paid that saving for retirement was impossible, forcing older professors to remain in positions better filled by younger teachers. Pensioning off older professors who otherwise could not afford to retire would infuse higher education with a “spirit of enterprise and efficiency,” the same spirit Carnegie had employed in the manufacture of steel (Graebner,111). Henry Pritchett, the director chosen to run the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (CFAT), saw college pensions in a much broader light. Pensions were a way to “reshape higher education.” Vetting college professors who applied for a pension and holding the pensioner hostage to foundation-approved good behavior would, Prichett believed, ensure professorial adherence to the social values of Prichett, Carnegie, et al. (The National Education Association, in contrast, thought this plan an insidious attack on academic freedom!) Eventually funding individual pensions for individual professors became too costly even for Carnegie’s endowment wealth. In 1918 the pension plan of CFAT was replaced by the Teachers’ Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA), a privately held company for which CFAT agreed to foot the administrative bills. This agency would evolve into the contributory pension plan we have today.

Whether intended to create efficiencies in higher education or meant to constrain the views of college teachers, either way, Graebner found the origins of college retirement rooted in a larger history of labor and management, profit and loss, and corporate welfare. His is a story that highlights the generational casualties of capitalist economic development driven by reliance on manufacturing speed and technological innovation. College retirement funding shows just how ubiquitous was the rhetoric of efficiency promoted by early twentieth-century scientific management. CFAT was, it seems, the first string in the net that binds rewards for college teaching to the fortunes of American corporations.

Sometime I’d like to follow the history of TIAA beyond the 1910s. (I did find an interesting website, part of a “Frontline Report” from April 2013 on “The Retirement Gamble.” This segment about “Five Moments [since the 1960s] that Shaped the 401(k)”** speaks to recent tax and policy developments that led to the replacement of corporate pension benefits with independent 401(k)/403(b) plans.) But, the history of TIAA-CREF will keep.

I am much more intrigued at the moment by the figure of the superannuated professor and the drive to achieve efficiency and profit by “disemploying” (that’s my word, not Graebner’s) the old and the obsolete. The charge of being “superannuated,” though rarely phrased as such, is still a potent weapon against older professors in a job market with far more new PhD’s than full-time academic positions. We seem to take on faith that innovation belongs to the young, and often it does. Yet faced with 4 more years of employment, I hope to engage a department and university culture in which the young and the old, the innovative and the obsolescent, will coexist. Who knows what joining the experience of the superannuated and the inventiveness of the freshly minted might accomplish.

*William Graebner, A History of Retirement; The Meaning and Function of an American Institution, 1885-1978 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980).



2 thoughts on “TIAA-CREF and the Superannuated Professor

  1. I stumbled over your post this morning as I was doing some research for a work project. Thought-provoking stuff. I hope your four-year journey toward retirement (not superannuation — I think you’re a long way from that) is going well.

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