The first day of the rest of my life

by Chris Bertram on October 1, 2020

Today, for the first time for over thirty years, I don’t have an employer. This is because I decided to retire rather than to face the unwelcome choice between online teaching and exposing myself to COVID in the classroom. I think, in fact, that I didn’t have enough “points” to get an exemption from face-to-face, despite being nearly 62 and having high blood pressure. Oh well, the issue is now moot. I shall miss being around students, chatting to them, helping them and getting the buzz that you get from a good classroom discussion. I won’t miss reading and marking student essays and exams though. Not one bit. I hope I’ve done a good job over the years, even though I feel I only learnt to teach well in the past decade (thanks to the direct and indirect influence of Harry).

There’s another reason to stop now though, which gives me a slight sense of vertigo, to be honest, and it involves “owning your own bullshit”. I’ll have a lot less income but I’ll have a lot more time. I’ve long believed that we, as a society (swap in your own society if you too live in a wealthy one) consume too much, engage in too much burdensome toil, and have too little leisure time to enjoy and indeed work on freely chosen goals. Capitalism has a built-in tendency to promote burdensome toil in the pursuit of consumption, but now I have a choice. Can I live with it? And will I make the most of it without the external discipline provided by the expectations of employers, colleagues and students? That’s a big test. But I hope to continue writing and publishing on many of the same topics I worked on up to now, and chiefly on migration and justice. I’m also happy to stand up on my hind-legs and talk to people about political philosophy and related matters, most of the time for nothing (invitations welcome!).

One thing I haven’t made my mind up on though: mode of publishing. People read books and people read blogs, so if you want to communicate your ideas then both are good formats (among others). But is there any point in continuing to send papers to academic journals? On the plus side, the peer review process induces a kind of discipline and quality control. On the other hand, many of the things that reviewers insist upon are pointless and detract from what you’re trying to say. And then there’s the small matter of the fact that nobody reads such papers. It is a source of lasting frustration that political philosophy as practised in academic journals is an activity that is almost entirely disconnected from the social and political life of the societies that surround it. I don’t mean that we ought to be getting down and dirty with Donald Trump or Brexit, but that we need to find ways of making the things we write about (should foreigners, or expatriates, have voting rights?, for example) cut through to public discourse. Making that argument in the pages of Philosophy and Public Affairs may not make enough of a difference, however good it is for an academic’s promotion prospects. But then, cutting through was one of the hopes I always had for Crooked Timber.



Brian Weatherson 10.01.20 at 12:54 pm

Yeah, the readership numbers for academic journals are depressing. At Imprint we’re Open Access, so we don’t even have paywalls keeping us down. And article downloads are often measured in the hundreds.

We need more things in philosophy like Monkey Cage – something where the average article is 1000 or so words, and draws on careful research to make a point in a way that’s accessible to non-specialists. (Having it hosted at a national newspaper wouldn’t hurt too.) On this model the point of the journals would always to be in the background, to be the venue where the specialists can fight out the details amongst themselves with the intent to inform, rather than constitute, the public facing work.

Crooked Timber isn’t a bad substitute for this – especially if you publish academic work in open access venues you can use CT for the publicly accessible discussion of the work. But you’re not the only academic facing the challenge you describe in the last paragraph, and most people don’t have a good outlet for this kind of work.


Michael Cain 10.01.20 at 1:17 pm

Congratulations, I think. One of my common observations is that one good thing about retirement is that I get to choose my own research projects. The corresponding bad thing is that funding is trickier.


SamChevre 10.01.20 at 2:18 pm

Congratulations? I think that’s right. My great-uncle (an economist, one of my largest influences) retired in his early 60’s, but continued to work until he was 90 because he found his topic more interesting than most other things in the world. I aspire to be him when I grow up.

On modes of publishing, for me (a non-academic) the blog-type platforms with long articles and well-moderated comment sections have been extremely helpful in understanding topics better (although I often don’t agree, I at least have a clearer idea why not). Top examples of the genre: Michael Berube’s Theory Tuesdays, SlateStarCodex reviews of mental health and medication related to mental health, Timothy Burke on the university, Eugene Volokh on free speech law. The comments are critical for me–they fill the same role as the discussion with classmates of filling in gaps in the knowledge I came in with and clarifying terms and insights. And to do that, they have to be well-moderated but not limited to only one point of view.


LFC 10.01.20 at 3:13 pm

@ Brian Weatherson

When the Monkey Cage was a standalone blog I read it fairly regularly, but when it moved to the Washington Post, I stopped reading it — not b/c I am anti WaPo (in fact I have a digital subscription) but I just never got in the habit of following The Monkey Cage after it moved. It’s a bit more difficult to navigate to it than when it was a standalone blog but that’s not a real reason since I cd have bookmarked it at its WaPo site.

While the Monkey Cage made, and presumably continues to make, useful contributions, thanks partly to Henry Farrell’s efforts and those of some others, I never much liked certain things about it. I don’t know whether this is still true, but as a standalone blog it sometimes gave off the vibe that it represented The Voice of Political Science (in capital letters) and that anyone who disagreed or found it wanting was presumptively incapable of appreciating, or insufficiently taken with the virtues of, Real Social Science.

The implicit message was: if you disagree with our approach, you are a fuzzy-minded interpretivist, a wooly-minded postmodernist, or someone who doesn’t understand the role of evidence and data and is (probably) statistically illiterate. Not all the posts or all the contributors carried this message, but some did it seemed to me. I also happen to think that while there is good social science and bad (or less good) social science, there is no such thing as completely value-neutral social science, which TMC sometimes seemed to present itself as embodying (though not, I think, in anything that H. Farrell wrote).

Whether any of this bears on your suggestion that philosophy needs its own equivalent of TMC is, I guess, an open question. Since I’m not a philosopher it would probably be presumptuous of me to offer an opinion on that.


Jeff Darcy 10.01.20 at 3:26 pm

Congratulations, Chris. I also have retired very recently, not even a week ago yet, in my case from tech. Among other things, this has led to a sharp uptick in my blogging activity. Because of these similar circumstances, I particularly look forward to seeing where your journey takes you next.


Mike Huben 10.01.20 at 3:39 pm

“It is a source of lasting frustration that political philosophy as practised in academic journals is an activity that is almost entirely disconnected from the social and political life of the societies that surround it.”

That’s because politicians listen only to “philosophy” (aka propaganda) from think tanks. Politicians are not interested in truth, justice or realism or any of that: they are trying to appeal to a generation that has been brought up to believe the most convincing liars (hence Trump.)

The best you might be able to do to solve this problem is to assist at a progressive think tank. Bring some realism to politically active people who might actually do something with it.


Phil 10.01.20 at 3:48 pm

Great minds (and men in their 60s with elevated blood pressure) think alike – I’m currently part-time and thinking about retirement within the next couple of years, but if it looks like I’m going to be instructed to put myself in front of a class of maskless students I may well bring that date forward.

As for continuing to get stuff done – continuing to do work[1] when you aren’t being paid to do work[2] – today (one of my non-work[2] days) looks like being taken up almost entirely by non-work[1], and I suspect that the problems I’ve had before making full use of my time aren’t about to disappear. But it’s nice to be able to do the work[1] you want, even if there’s a battle against indolence, Twitter etc.


alfredlordbleep 10.01.20 at 4:05 pm

Footnoting here:
An (American) “general reader” I have been sustained by the NYRB, the LRB, (. . .) for years, but as one of the few non-professional subscribers to Philosophy and Public Affairs I found a handful of its essays most valuable of all my pickings. A good example is “Illiberal Libertarians: Why Libertarianism is not a Liberal View” by Samuel Freeman (Spring 2002), 105-151. An essay I recall CB acknowledged in passing.

note to footnote: cancelled my PAPA subscription some years ago. Had accumulated many of its volumes to read and re-read, according to my narrow interests, so I stopped there(!)


Kenny Easwaran 10.01.20 at 4:45 pm

It seems to me that one potentially relevant difference between blogs and journals is the lifespan of individual pieces of writing. There are certainly some posts from many years ago that keep getting read over and over, but linkrot is a real thing, and there just isn’t quite the same ability to cite old posts at a blog that has moved hosts as there is for journal articles.

Probably most of the things one wants to say don’t need this kind of long lifespan. But for things that do, the journal still seems to have an advantage.


John McGowan 10.01.20 at 5:19 pm

Congratulations. I have just retired as well. And have been blogging steadily, reading and discussing various things with ex-students and friends. The absurd productivity pressures of the academy and the even more absurd protocols of academic writing (enforced by peer review) are happily left behind. Find a few good interlocutors and keep posting to CT. I do worry about a blog’s Ephemeral nature (which Kenny Easwaran points out), so might consider a collection of blog posts, a kind of greatest hits. But otherwise the 20 to 40 people who read my blog offer me more in the way of responses than I ever received from academic work. Only a light exaggeration in that last sentence. I predict you will love retirement.


anon 10.01.20 at 5:31 pm

“This is because I decided to retire rather than to face the unwelcome choice between online teaching and exposing myself to COVID in the classroom.”

Remember: the people that stack oranges for you at the grocery store, for 1/5th of your salary, continued to do it throughout quarantine.

But you are the courageous one….


hix 10.01.20 at 5:47 pm

Happy sort of retirement.


Dr. Hilarius 10.01.20 at 6:31 pm

A difficult decision but a wise one. My wife is teaching remotely at the University of Washington. She and many other faculty were clear they would quit before walking into a classroom full of students. She misses the in-person interactions but doesn’t care to end her teaching career in ICU. My legal work has been greatly reduced but, at 66, I’m fortunate to not need the lost income.

Bet wishes for your continued writing and your photography.


LFC 10.01.20 at 8:04 pm

Forgot to say congrats.


ph 10.01.20 at 9:57 pm

Hi Chris. Congrats. You’re one of the CT posters who keeps the blog together these days. Even better, you’re someone whose writing and thinking has evolved. I don’t enjoy reading about these kinds of choices, but you’re spot-on observing that tenured academics are in many respects still at the mercy of bureaucracies. You probably know enough retired academics who have not thrived, especially in terms of physical health. I’m on my way out the door for a long walk. You’ll have time for plenty of these. And the snaps. As much as I enjoy them, these are very likely to improve as well. Enjoy the next stage!


Chris Bertram 10.01.20 at 10:10 pm

@anon writes:

Remember: the people that stack oranges for you at the grocery store, for 1/5th of your salary, continued to do it throughout quarantine.

But you are the courageous one….

I make no claims for my own bravery, but I particularly appreciate that this comment was posted by “anon”.


Faustusnotes 10.01.20 at 10:27 pm

Congratulations Chris. I Also think it’s good for people to retire at or near the deadline and give a chance to a younger person to influence the world (to the extent you did, ha) but I guess the Uni has not filled your position and will replace you with adjuncts…?

I think it’s shocking that your uni wouldn’t continue online teaching. Here in Japan we have about 5-10% of the UKs daily cases and teaching at my uni is still largely online, with most of my colleagues working from home half the week. It’s just astounding how reckless British institutions have been during this time. And contra “anon”, forcing you to work face to face with 100 super spreaders simply increases the risk to the grocery store worker, who has to turn up physically regardless of your working arrangements.

I would certainly be rethinking my loyalties in such a situation!

I hope you will blog more now you’re liberated from peer review!


Alan White 10.01.20 at 11:11 pm

I walked into retirement a year early starting 2018 because I was bribed by a buy-out and threatened to be put online and on the road–and 10 years on the road during my early years was quite enough. I wondered how I would miss the classroom–but to my great surprise I hardly miss it at all. And certainly not the grading! I’m coediting a book which keeps me in the picture in philosophy, but I’m not looking to do many if any more journal articles. I want to put together a book of verse though, having published some here and there during my career. But thankfully Wisconsin has a pretty generous retirement (listening Harry?)–I’m not making any less in retirement than when I worked–and I love the reduced stress (other than the Agent Orange stress–which is more than quite enough).

I think with your drive and interests will produce lots of good stuff in retirement, and especially many great photos.

Congratulations and the best of luck!


oldster 10.01.20 at 11:47 pm

Best wishes for your retirement. I have certainly enjoyed mine so far.
If anything, I wish I had got out a few years earlier, when I was physically more able. Now the things I had hoped to do in my retirement are often more than my body can support — travel, tinkering, etc.

Of course, travel is out for now in any case, with the pandemic.

But my point is: you made the right decision. Your sixties will be active and rich in experience, even if you have a little less ready cash.


Mike Furlan 10.02.20 at 1:50 am

“But you are the courageous one….”

Yes he is courageous. It is hard to walk away from your profession for any reason.

I am taking the easy route, and staying at work betting that my employer can keep a lid on the spread of the virus on campus. That is because I fear the unknown of finding a way to earn money quarantined (and provide health insurance) more than I fear what could turn out to be a chance of death of somewhere between 1 and 10 in a thousand.

He is a hero to me. So are the minimum wage folks. There is no one way.


J-D 10.02.20 at 2:54 am

I feel as if (I hope) this is an appropriate time to respond to a two-year-old comment which has stayed with me (though goodness knows there’s no reason why anybody else should recall it)

Reading comments at CT, particularly from those unable to understand or, more commonly, determined not to, can be trying for a writer. I’m grateful to J-D for confirming that my prose is not so obscure that it is beyond the comprehension of intelligent people of goodwill.

Thank you for the compliment.
It was my pleasure.


Matt 10.02.20 at 7:26 am

Good luck with the next step, Chris. I hope it will be enjoyable and you’ll keep writing. I am a bit envious – I’m not close to retirement age myself, but I do also wonder if I’ll ever really be able to retire. Enjoy being away from the ever increasing bureaucracy of the university!


RichieRich 10.02.20 at 8:44 am

Best wishes for your retirement.

I never got a chance to mention it on the thread beneath, but I really enjoyed your Goldbergs post. Up to reading it, I’d convinced myself that I wouldn’t enjoy the Goldbergs and so had never listened. Your post made me think I should give them a try. So I looked on YouTube and started by listening to Wilhelm Kempff playing the Aria and Variations 1-3. Just beautiful. There were parts that moved me to tears.

So thanks for changing my mind.


Bruce Baugh 10.02.20 at 3:44 pm

Best wishes on next steps, Chris! I’ve learned a great deal from your work over the years, and look forward to more.


dilbert dogbert 10.02.20 at 5:49 pm

Congratulations for graduating from work! I retired from NASA in 2001. I miss the folks I worked with and the interesting stuff I worked on. I esp miss working with the young work study kids. I would tell them how to do my job and stand by watching them struggle.
We are lucky to be the fortunate ones who are economically protected. At my age what I need is more time not more money or stuff. The wife has 3 new grand children that are so much fun to watch their progress in life. Would be nice if I stick around long enough so they would remember who I am.


Omega Centauri 10.02.20 at 6:59 pm

Not in philosophy or teaching, but tech and at 68 almost ready to move beyond employment. As I can work from home and I fear not having enough to do during the pandemic, I’m hoping to hold on until life returns to something halfway normal -as I hope it will be after vaccine(s) are widely available. Yes, I would much prefer to choose my own areas. I actually would like to offer my services (at computing) to university or climate researchers and maybe do that half time. But for now I suffer from the expectation of my employer for an apparently infinite level of output.


Pub Editor 10.02.20 at 8:13 pm

Congrats! And best wishes for your retirement.


craig fritch 10.02.20 at 9:57 pm

I am an elementary school teacher,retired for past decade, but substitute teaching in the locql elementary school right up to the arrival of The Pest. I loved subbing and will miss watching kids grow & running into them around town ( pop 500). But with 2 heart attacks & high BP, getting sick is a death sentence.
However no matter the economics; no matter the pleasure of little kids, I find puttering & working on my 10 acres is just fine.
I have seen young teachers come & go. They are wonderful; I hope they stay healthy – brave kids.


John Quiggin 10.03.20 at 12:23 am

Best wishes for your retirement, Chris. I think your contributions to CT have cut through, as much as any individual academic can reasonably expect to achieve this.

On future publication plans, I’m also approaching retirement, and am abandoning journal articles with a couple of exceptions.

I have some theoretical projects for which the imprimatur of a journal is important. That means lots of unreadable math, even if the policy implications can be explained in a sentence

I also do some co-authored papers with students. Contrary to the cliche of exploitative supervisors, my students are eager to have my name on the paper, believing (correctly from the evidence I’ve seen) that in a single-blind process, that a recognizable name improves chances of publication.


eg 10.03.20 at 2:36 am

Best wishes for your retirement— I’m 5 months behind you. I could have gone 3 years ago, but didn’t want to retire at the same time as my wife. My brother-in-law (a Philosophy professor) says he will never retire. I don’t understand those people, really.


JakeB 10.03.20 at 5:38 am

Cheers Chris; my best wishes. I myself happened to jump at the same time I was being pushed last year. I look forward to more of your writing — and photography — in whatever medium you end up using.


Mike Huben 10.03.20 at 12:25 pm

I’ve long enjoyed and admired your writings, Chris. But this is beneath you:

“I make no claims for my own bravery, but I particularly appreciate that this comment was posted by “anon”.”

It is simply a deflection from a very real point that you could have simply acknowledged as correct.

You live in a position of privilege, where you have options other than poverty. That doesn’t mean you are bad, and you could have simply reaffirmed the hardship of the “people that stack oranges”.

For all the right-wing moaning about economics, I’m surprised that I haven’t seen proposals that the low-paid essential employees are not compensated for their increased risk with insurance against that risk. In a properly progressive society, that would be mandated.


stowemoody 10.03.20 at 5:09 pm

If you decide to online teaching isn’t bad if you don’t have to zoom and if you have some online packages that the students pay for instead of textbooks.


Barry Cotter 10.04.20 at 9:38 am

May you have decades to enjoy your retirement. I vote for abandoning articles if you want to, based on what I’ve seen Bryan Caplan doing. While researching a new book everything is blog posts and there are many, many blog posts. That has led to four books that were at least reasonably week received and more public intellectual impact than most academics, as I’m sure you’re aware given your shared interests in open borders.


notGoodenough 10.04.20 at 10:16 am

Chris Bertram,

Thank you for your good work in discussing difficult topics which are often contentious and overlooked. I will take this opportunity to wish you good luck, and to echo many others by saying that I am very much looking forward to seeing your next endeavours, in whatever format you prefer!

As a side note, I wonder if you’ll also be able to include activism as part of your endeavours? Regardless, I am confident you will continue to be a force for good.


David J. Littleboy 10.04.20 at 2:11 pm

Congrats on retirement!

A word of warning, though. I’m finding time management in retirement to be hard. Part of the problem here was that I’ve been spending way too much time with my head under the blankets screaming (par for the course for 2020), but I’m not getting as much done as I had hoped. (I retired at the beginning of this year.) You’re probably a more act together type than I, so you’ll probably do fine, but be warned. What you don’t do today, may not get done tomorrow either.


trane 10.04.20 at 6:17 pm

Congratulations. Godspeed!



Doug Alder 10.05.20 at 10:12 pm

Chris – speaking from my own experience, I retired 3 years ago at age 68 after several years making in the low 6 figures. The old saw about your expenses going up in step with your income seems to be true for many, it certainly was for me. Now my pensions give me about 1/6th what I was making at the end and I have found it rather easy to pare down my expenses and even save money each month. It’s all about setting expectations, and budgeting.

Given the current pandemic you might want to consider setting up your own virtual tutoring practice, particularly for those that are schooling from home. I suspect there will be quite a good market for that. If we all survive the pandemic you could consider expanding that to in person tutoring in your immediate locality.

Best regards

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