WOW members publish first of its kind study, examining a newer breed of globally mobile international employee: older academic international business travellers.

Photo credit: The Guardian

Professors Kate Hutchings and Adrian Wilkinson recently authored (with Chris Brewster, Henley Business School, UK, as third author) a paper examining a small but potentially significant group of older academic international business travellers (AIBTs).

‘We were intrigued to understand why some of our older colleagues who have reached a typical retirement age, and were in a position to access their superannuation/pension funds and give up full-time work have continued to work long hours in academia and publish as much as always, whilst also regularly travelling across the globe to deliver conference keynote speeches, teach courses, engage with research and/or consult to international organisations’, says Professor Hutchings.

Using semi-structured interviews with older academics from Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, the authors found ten key drivers for continuing to work, albeit in a different capacity, as AIBTs; most of which related to strong identification with occupation.

Drivers to keep working but in a different capacity

The paper outlines ten ‘drivers’ or motivations for academics to keep working but in a different capacity or with a changed work commitment. The first four drivers mapped onto earlier research about why people continue to work later in life and included:

1. Finances

2. Some time to do non-work activities

3. Health requiring a change to reduced work hours

 4. Family/relationships/personal.

The other six drivers were all associated with identity in some way and were strongly related to the interviewees’ academic careers:

5. Identity and occupation

6. Identity associated with choice of type of work

7. Identity associated with social aspects of being at the workplace

8. Identity associated with being good at scholarly work/academia as the focus

9. Identity associated with the work being well regarded and travelling to places to present the work

10. Identity associated with giving back to the academic or broader community.

The authors also learned that some of the interviewees have greater satisfaction levels than experienced in their previous work which involved continuing employment or in roles in which they had less choice over the type of academic work they undertook.

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‘Interviewees expressed a strong intention to continue working as long as opportunities are presented to them and their interest in doing so and their health allows’, says Professor Hutchings.

In previous generations, people retired completely from work and this research suggests that, for some, we should think about retirement as not being about a complete stop but rather as representing an easing up from full-time work or from certain kinds of work. For these academics, many plan to continue with their careers indefinitely or work fewer hours while continuing to choose the aspects of the career that they most enjoy because occupational identity is integral to the lives of these AIBTs.

An implication of this research is that, given remuneration is not a key concern, AIBTs are potentially important and valuable members of the academic labour force and represent effective university HRM. The research suggests that universities that want to retain high-skilled academic staff, particularly their more experienced staff, need to think about how to provide opportunities for people to specialise and recognise the value-add of older workers by making adjustments to suit people’s career transitions through the generations.

Photo credit: Williams College

Further, given the mentoring role many undertake, retaining older academic workers through understanding the importance of work to them and their career transitions becomes as important as growing the pipeline of entry-level academics.

Though a number of interviewees mentioned that their reason for continuing to work was to mentor junior colleagues, the research highlights the need to examine the views of junior academics about how such older academics add value to their work and the views of senior university administrators about the effects of the employment of older (often unpaid) academics.

All things considered, many of these staff have deep international (including professional rather than formal university) social connections – and in an era of internationalisation in universities there seem to be myriad opportunities to utilise the personal ties and human capital of these AIBTs to benefit universities.