In less than a month, I will be 40 years old.
In my early 30s, I took away my date of birth from social media and from my CV.
The reason behind this was that I worried about being regarded as "past my prime", especially for hiring committees. It took me a while to get funding for my PhD and then it took me a while to get a second PhD, as well as several postdoc positions. I also had two children. My partner was the primary caregiver for both through their early years, so I only took a few months off for each birth. Still, this all takes time--and time goes on inexorably.
In the past I could not help thinking, "By age 40, I should..."
- Have a permanent job, check. Still, what is permanent these days?
- Bought house, nope. Too expensive.
- Published a paper in one of the top-3 philosophy journals, nope. (I should start writing in a different way and actually submit to these things, so it doesn't seem to be that big a priority). Etc.
We use age as a measuring-rod, a series of checkpoints that we should have reached. Seeing younger people getting all sorts of accolades and accomplishments fills us with gladness for them, but also amps up our insecurity, as if we're missing the targets we need to hit. A bit like looking at the ultrasound of a gestating fetus, there are these set checkpoints that we evaluate ourselves by. By age x I surely should have accomplished y. Otherwise, there's a problem.
I have since noticed that female philosophers I know tend to be a bit more reticent about their date of birth compared to male-identifying philosophers.
Hannah Gadsby, in her brilliant show Nanette gives us a clue why. Not only female actors and singers, but everyone who presents as female basically needs to look and be young to count.
She considers Picasso and says that
"Picasso fucked an underage girl, Marie-Thérèse Walter. She was 17 when they met. Underage. Legally underage. Picasso was 42, married, at the height of his career. Does it matter? Yeah. Yeah, it actually does. It does matter. But as Picasso said, no, it was perfect. I was in my prime, she was in her prime. I probably read that when I was 17. Do you know how grim that was?"
A bit further Gadsby strongly repudiates this idea
"a 17-year-old girl is just never, ever, ever in her prime! Ever! I am in my prime! Would you test your strength out on me?"
Gadsby asserts her worth as a standup comedian, no ifs, no buts. It is hard to do this in academia. Not only because we use age as a measuring-rod but we also use others' life trajectory to gauge our own accomplishments, and there are always people who make full professor before age 40, who get at the tenure track in their mid-20s and so on, who have written more books, more articles.
If we don't do that, we feel we need to find excuses.
I did it myself in the start of this post, talking about 2 PhD and 2 children, which all take time.
There are formal ways to declare mitigating circumstances for why one applies for an early-career position, such as the ERC starting grant or the Tier-2 Canada Research Chairs, which all expire after a number of years post-PhD. But why can't we just write: it took me a while to find my feet. It took me a while to get a permanent position. It took me a while to find the topics and approaches that I feel comfortable in.
As academics, we're specialists in a very peculiar craft. Not only do we need to learn the rules of this craft and abide by them, we also need to innovate and rewrite the rules, to some extent.
To expand on this: we need as academics a certain docility, and being in line with what others do and say. There are rules and norms, for writing articles, books, grants, job applications, presenting at conferences, chairing conferences, intervening in debates. It takes time and experience to get on top of all this, especially if one comes to it as a relative outsider. For instance, someone who is working class, as I was born into, lacks the cultural and social capital to understand all these rules from the outset. It's a learning process, and requires lots of interactions, including bruising encounters during one's presentations, fielding referee comments etc.
Rewriting the rules, of course, depends on one's social position. The more privileged we are, the more people will accept we rewrite the rules. We might be applauded for it, if in the right position. Being in a relatively unprivileged position, however, you can expect pushback when you try to rewrite the rules. But I nevertheless try to do this, because in order to fit in academia I should not just alter myself to fit the academy, but also to alter my environment to some extent in order to survive and thrive in it. So I try to shape my more immediate environment, by writing about things I care about, and doing things that I think help make the academy a more level playing field, such as our Cocoon job market mentoring programme.
Even if we are in a lucky position to be hitting all the age-related targets we set ourselves, the resulting felicitous position is a fake position of stability. Suppose I got my house, my ideal job, my single-authored paper in Philosophical Review on a topic I care about. Then I go off into the sunset, into that blissful existence of middle age where I can look just as happy and confident and accomplished as all the academics I admire.
We're all going to grow old, frail and die eventually. And that's the best case scenario. Most of us are unremarkable--our work is barely cited now, and it's only downhill after we are no longer there to advocate for our own philosophical positions.
An older academic, an accomplished ethicist, admitted to me that he was mortally afraid that people would stop inviting him. That they'd perceive him as passé and over the hill. His vanity, he said, needed constant reassurance. His continued work was in part motivated by a desire to stay relevant.
I do think that is a good aim, to try to do work that remains relevant, even if strictly speaking one doesn't have to (see this intriguing blogpost for a different view). But it's a mistake to think we need to be reaching targets at particular ages, or aren't capable of growth after a certain age.
I've recently read a lot of mystical literature, which talks about the practices of being in rapport with God and it's clear there that spiritual growth, at least, doesn't have an expiry date. Being a mystic is just damn hard work, and it takes a while before a person can--with their particular situation in life, including gender, socio-economic status, will, motivations, find themselves in a situation that their mind is receptive to God's presence.
Moral growth doesn't have an expiry date either. The Analects do talk about age-related milestones, for instance, but also say that it just takes a long time to reach a certain moral maturity (see Chapter 2, "At fifteen my heart was set on learning; at thirty I stood firm; at forty I had no more doubts; at fifty I knew the will of Heaven; at sixty my ear was obedient; at seventy I could follow my heart's desire without overstepping the boundaries of what was right.").
So I decided to write, close to my 40th birthday, this blogpost on that our growth as philosophers doesn't need to be hitting particular targets. While I'm wary of claims that being an academic is so much more than just a job, it is certainly right that being an academic requires a readjustment of the self, the will, and cultivating one's creativity, and this requires a certain maturity and that takes time. For example, I've just recently started writing fiction, and I'm excited by the possibilities it offers for philosophical expression.
I hope my best work is yet to be written, I think that's a reasonable hope for many of us, regardless of age.