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Science and Engineering Indicators 2004
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Chapter 3:
U.S. S&E Labor Force Profile

Labor Market Conditions
for Recent S&E Graduates

Age and Retirement
Global S&E Labor Force
and the United States
Click for Figure 3-26
Figure 3-26

Click for Figure 3-27
Figure 3-27

Click for Figure 3-28
Figure 3-28

Science and Engineering Labor Force

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Age and Retirement

Implications for S&E Workforce
S&E Workforce Retirement Patterns

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

Some controversy exists about the possible effects of age distribution on scientific productivity. Increasing average age may mean increased experience and greater productivity among scientific workers. However, others argue that it could reduce opportunities for younger scientists to work independently. In many fields, scientific folklore as well as actual evidence indicates that the most creative research comes from younger people (Stephan and Levin 1992).

This section does not attempt to model and project future S&E labor market trends; however, some general conclusions can be made. Absent changes in degree production, retirement patterns, or immigration, the number of S&E-trained workers in the labor force will continue to grow for some time, but the growth rate may slow significantly as a dramatically greater proportion of the S&E labor force reaches traditional retirement age. As the growth rate slows, the average age of the S&E labor force will increase.

Implications for S&E Workforce top of page

Net immigration, morbidity, mortality, and, most of all, historical S&E degree production patterns affect age distribution among scientists and engineers in the workforce. Appendix table 3-18 Microsoft Excel icon shows age distributions for S&E degree recipients in 1999, by degree level and broad field of degree. 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 the ages of 40 and 49. (Figure 3-26 figure shows the age distribution of the labor force with S&E degrees broken down by level of degree.) In general, the majority of individuals in the labor force with S&E degrees are in their most productive years (from their late 30s through their early 50s), with the largest group ages 40-44. More than half of workers with S&E degrees are age 40 or older, and the 40–44 age group is nearly four times as large as the 60–64 age group.

This general pattern also holds true for those individuals with S&E doctorate degrees. Ph.D. holders are somewhat older than individuals who have less advanced S&E degrees; this circumstance occurs because there are fewer doctorate 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 between the ages of 45 and 54. This can be most directly seen in figure 3-26 figure, which compares the age distribution of S&E degree holders in the labor force at each level of degree. Even if one takes into account the somewhat older retirement ages of doctorate holders, a much larger proportion of the doctorate holders are near traditional retirement ages than are individuals with either S&E bachelor's or master's degrees.

Across all degree levels and fields, 25.6 percent of the labor force with S&E degrees is older than age 50. The proportion ranges from 10.1 percent of individuals with their highest degree in computer sciences to 39.9 percent of individuals with their highest degree in sociology/anthropology (figure 3-27 figure).

Taken as a whole, the age distribution of S&E-educated individuals suggests several likely important effects on the future S&E labor force:

  • Barring large changes in degree production, retirement rates, or immigration, the number of trained scientists and engineers in the labor force will continue to increase, because the number of individuals currently receiving S&E degrees greatly exceeds the number of workers with S&E degrees nearing traditional retirement age.

  • However, unless large increases in degree production occur, the average age of workers with S&E degrees will rise.

  • Barring large reductions in retirement rates, the total number of retirements among workers with S&E degrees will dramatically increase over the next 20 years. This may prove particularly true for Ph.D. holders because of the steepness of their age profile. As retirements increase, the difference between the number of new degrees earned and the number of retirements will narrow (and ultimately disappear).

Taken together, these factors suggest a slower-growing and older S&E labor force. Both trends would be accentuated if either new degree production were to drop or immigration to slow, both concerns raised by a recent report of the Committee on Education and Human Resources Task Force on National Workforce Policies for Science and Engineering of the National Science Board (NSB 2003).

S&E Workforce Retirement Patterns top of page

The retirement behavior of individuals can differ in complex ways. Some individuals retire from one job and continue to work part time or even full time at another position, sometimes even for the same employer. Others leave the workforce without a retired designation from a formal pension plan. Table 3-19 text table summarizes three ways of looking at changes in workforce involvement for S&E degree holders: leaving full-time employment, leaving the workforce, and retiring from a particular job.

By age 62, 50 percent of both S&E bachelor's and master's degree recipients no longer work full time; however, S&E doctorate holders do not reach the 50 percent mark until age 66. Longevity also differs by degree level when measuring the number of individuals who leave the work-force entirely: half of S&E bachelor's and master's degree recipients had left the workforce entirely by age 65, but a similar proportion of Ph.D. holders did not do so until age 68. Formal retirement also occurs at somewhat higher ages for doctorate holders: more than 50 percent of bachelor's and master's degree recipients retired from employment by age 63, compared with age 66 for doctorate holders.

Figure 3-28 figure shows data on S&E degree holders leaving full-time employment at ages 55 through 69. For all degree levels, the portion of S&E degree holders who work full time declines fairly steadily by age, but after age 55, full-time employment for doctorate holders becomes significantly greater than for bachelor's and master's degree holders. At age 69, 27 percent of doctorate holders work full time compared with 13 percent of bachelor's or master's degree recipients.

The fact that a higher proportion of doctorate holders work in the academic sector or for the Federal Government may account for the slower retirement rate among doctorate holders. Table 3-20 text table shows rates at which doctorate holders left full-time employment, by sector of employment, between 1999 and 2001.[16] In 1999, within each age group, a smaller portion of doctorate holders employed at educational institutions (except at ages 66–70) or by the Federal Government (except at ages 71–73) left full-time employment compared with their counterparts employed in private noneducation sectors.

Although slower retirement rates (particularly in academia) for S&E doctorate holders are significant and of some policy interest, these slower rates do not mean that academic or other doctorate holders seldom retire. Indeed, figure 3-28 figure indicates retirement patterns similar to the ones for individuals holding bachelor's and master's degrees, with retirement simply delayed by 2 or 3 years. Even the 2-year transition rates for academia in table 3-20 text table show more than a third of individuals who were still working at ages 66 to 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 individuals younger than age 63 (table 3-21 text table). The drop in workforce participation among the retired is more pronounced for part-time work; i.e., older retired S&E workers more often work full time than part time. Retired S&E doctorate holders follow this pattern, albeit with somewhat greater rates of postretirement employment than shown by bachelor's and master's degree recipients.


[16]  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 2-year transition rate can be calculated using the NSF/SRS SESTAT data file matched longitudinally at the individual level.

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