Chapter 3: Science and Engineering Labor Force

Age and Retirement

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 indicate 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

Net immigration, morbidity, mortality, and, most of all, historical S&E degree production patterns affect age distribution among scientists and engineers in the workforce. With the exception of new fields such as computer sciences (in which 56% 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 3-31 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 30–34. More than half of workers with S&E degrees are age 40 or older, and the 40–44 age group is more than two times as large as the 60–64 age group.

This general pattern also holds true for those individuals with S&E doctorate degrees. Doctorate degree holders are somewhat older than individuals who have less advanced S&E degrees; this circumstance occurs because fewer doctorate degree holders are in younger age categories, reflecting that time is needed to obtain this degree. The greatest population density of S&E doctorate degree holders occurs between the ages of 40 and 54. This can be most directly seen in figure 3-32 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 degree holders, a much larger proportion of them are near traditional retirement ages than are individuals with either S&E bachelor's or master's degrees.

The extent of the recent aging of the S&E labor force is highlighted in figure 3-33 figure., which shows the age distribution of S&E doctorate holders in 1993 and 2003. S&E doctorate holders under age 35 are about the same proportion of the S&E doctorate level labor force in both years. However, over the decade, the 35–54 age group became a much smaller part of the full S&E doctorate-level labor force. What grew was the proportion of S&E doctorate holders age 55 and older.

Across all degree levels and fields, 26.4% of the labor force with S&E degrees is older than age 50. The proportion ranges from 11.1% of individuals with their highest degree in computer sciences to 37.7% of individuals with their highest degree in physics (figure 3-34 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 doctorate degree 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).

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S&E Workforce Retirement Patterns

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 3-16 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% of S&E bachelor's degree recipients no longer work full time. Similarly, by age 62, 50% of master's degree recipients do not work full time either. However, S&E doctorate degree holders do not reach the 50% not working full time until age 66. Longevity also differs by degree level when measuring the number of individuals who leave the workforce entirely: half of S&E bachelor's degree recipients had left the workforce entirely by age 65, but the same proportion of master's degree and doctorate degree holders did not do so until ages 66 and 70, respectively. Formal retirement also occurs at somewhat higher ages for doctorate degree holders: more than 50% of bachelor's and master's degree recipients have "retired" from jobs by age 62, compared with age 65 for doctorate degree holders.

Figure 3-35 figure. shows data on S&E degree holders working full time 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 degree holders becomes significantly greater than for bachelor's and master's degree holders. At age 69, 21% of doctorate degree holders work full time, compared with 16% of bachelor's or master's degree recipients.

Table 3-17 table. shows rates at which doctorate degree holders left full-time employment, by sector of employment, between 1999 and 2001 and between 2001 and 2003. At nearly every age and sector of employment, a greater proportion of doctoral degree holders left full-time employment in the more recent period than between 1999 and 2001. More examination is needed to understand why this change might have occurred.

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 3-18 table.). However, among "retired" individuals ages 71 to 75, 12% keep working either full time or part time among bachelor's degree holders, 17% among master's degree holders, and 19% among doctoral degree holders.

National Science Board.