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Indicators 2002
Introduction Page Overview Page Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3: Science and Engineering Workforce Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Appendix
Chapter Contents:
Profile of the U.S. S&E Workforce
Labor Market Conditions for Recent S&E Degree-Holders
Age and Retirement
Projected Demand for S&E Workers
The Global S&E Workforce and the United States
Conclusion and Summary
Selected Bibliography
Appendix Tables
List of Figures
Presentation Slides

Click for Figure 3-17
Figure 3-17

Click for Figure 3-18
Figure 3-18

Science and Engineering Workforce

Age and Retirement

Age and Implications for the S&E Workforce
Retirement Patterns for the S&E Workforce

The size of the S&E workforce, its productivity, and opportunities for new S&E workers are all greatly affected by the age distribution and retirement patterns of the S&E workforce. For many decades, rapid increases in new entries led to a relatively young S&E workforce with only a small percentage near traditional retirement ages. This general picture is rapidly changing as the individuals who earned S&E degrees in the late 1960s and early 1970s move into what is likely to be the latter part of their careers.

The possible effects of age distribution on scientific productivity are controversial. Increasing average age may mean increased experience and greater productivity among scientific workers. Others argue that it can reduce the opportunities for younger scientists to work independently. Indeed, in many fields, scientific folklore as well as actual evidence indicate that the most creative research comes from younger people. Ongoing research on the cognitive aspects of aging and the sociology of science is relevant to this debate but will not be reviewed here.

Age and Implications for the S&E Workforce top of page

Age distribution among scientists and engineers in the workforce is affected by net immigration, morbidity, mortality, and, most of all, historical S&E degree production patterns. Age distributions for S&E degree recipients in 1999 are given by degree level and broad field of degree in appendix table 3-36. With the exception of new fields such as computer sciences (in which 56 percent of degree-holders are younger than age 40), the greatest population density of individuals with S&E degrees occurs between ages 40 and 49. This is seen in figure 3-17 figure, which shows the age distribution of the S&E-degreed labor force broken down by level of degree. In general, most people in the S&E-degreed labor force are in their most productive years—the late 30s through early 50s, the largest group being ages 40-44. More than one-half of S&E-degreed workers are age 40 or older, and the 40-44 age group is nearly 4 times as large as the 60-64 age group.

This general pattern also holds true for those with Ph.D.s in S&E. Ph.D.-holders are somewhat older than those who have less advanced S&E degrees; this circumstance occurs because there are fewer Ph.D.-holders in younger age categories, reflecting that time is needed to obtain this degree. The greatest population density of S&E Ph.D.-holders occurs for those ages 45 to 54 years.

For all degree levels and fields, only a small portion of the S&E-degreed labor force was near traditional retirement ages: 11.8 percent overall were 55 or older. This circumstance suggests several likely effects on the future S&E labor force that are important and often overlooked:
  • Barring large reductions in degree production or similarly large increases in retirement rates, the number of trained scientists and engineers in the labor force will continue to increase for some time. The number of individuals currently receiving S&E degrees greatly exceeds the number of S&E-degreed workers near traditional retirement ages.
  • Barring large increases in degree production, the average age of S&E-degreed workers will rise.
  • Barring large reductions in retirement rates, the total number of retirements among S&E-degreed workers will dramatically increase over the next 20 years. This may be particularly true for Ph.D.-holders because of the steepness of their age profile.

Retirement Patterns for the S&E Workforce top of page

The retirement behavior of individuals can differ in complex ways. Some individuals "retire" from a job while continuing to work full or part time, sometimes for the same employer, whereas others leave the workforce without a "retired" designation from a formal pension plan. Three ways of thinking about changes in workforce involvement for S&E degree-holders are summarized in text table 3-20 text table: leaving full-time employment, leaving the workforce, and retiring from a particular job.

By age 62, 50 percent of S&E bachelor’s and master’s degree-recipients were not employed full time. For S&E Ph.D.-holders, this 50 percent mark was not reached until age 66, three years later. Longevity also differs by degree level when measuring those leaving the workforce entirely: one-half of S&E bachelor’s and master’s degree-recipients left the workforce entirely by age 65, but Ph.D.-holders did not do so until age 68. Formal retirement also occurs at somewhat higher ages for Ph.D.-holders: more than 50 percent of S&E bachelor’s and master’s degree-recipients "retired" from employment by age 63 compared with age 66 for S&E Ph.D.-holders.

Data on S&E degree-holders leaving full-time employment by ages 55 to 69 are shown in figure 3-18 figure. For all degree levels, the portion of S&E degree-holders who work full time declines fairly steadily by age. After age 55, full-time employment for S&E doctorate-holders becomes significantly greater than for bachelor’s and master’s degree-recipients. At age 69, more than 27 percent of S&E Ph.D.-holders work full time compared with 13 percent of bachelor’s or master’s degree-recipients.

Academic employment may be one reason for a slower retirement rate among Ph.D.-holders. Text table 3-21 text table shows rates at which S&E Ph.D.-holders left full-time employment by sector of employment between 1997 and 1999.[20] Within each age group (except ages 66-70), a smaller portion of S&E Ph.D.-holders employed in 1997 at four-year colleges or universities or by government left full-time employment compared with S&E Ph.D.-holders employed by for-profit companies and in all sectors combined.

Although slower retirement for S&E Ph.D.-holders (particularly in academia) is significant and of some policy interest, it is important to recognize that this does not mean that academic or other Ph.D.-holders seldom retire. Indeed, figure 3-18 figure indicates that their retirement patterns are similar to those for bachelor’s and master’s degree-recipients; retirement for Ph.D.-holders is just delayed two or three years. Even the two-year transition rates for academia in text table 3-21 text table show more than 40 percent of those ages 66-70 leaving full-time employment.

Although many S&E degree-holders who formally "retire" from one job continue to work full or part time, this occurs most often among those younger than age 63. (See text table 3-22 text table.) The drop in workforce participation among the "retired" is more pronounced for part-time work; i.e., older retired S&E workers are more likely to be working full time than part time. Retired Ph.D. scientists and engineers follow this pattern, albeit with somewhat greater rates of postretirement employment than shown by bachelor’s and master’s degree-recipients. See sidebar, "Are Information Technology Careers Difficult for Older Workers?"


[20] As a practical matter, it would be difficult to calculate many of the measures of retirement used previously in this chapter by sector of employment. However, a two-year transition rate can be calculated using the NSF/SRS SESTAT data file matched longitudinally at the individual level.

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