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Chapter 3. Science and Engineering Labor Force

Age and Retirement of the S&E Workforce

This section focuses on indicators of the aging of the S&E workforce, for example, the retirement patterns of S&E workers and workforce participation levels among older individuals. The high concentration of S&E workers over age 50 suggests that the S&E workforce will soon experience high levels of turnover. The age distribution and retirement patterns of S&E workers have important implications for the supply of S&E expertise in the economy. An aging S&E labor force may translate into rising output and productivity as S&E workers acquire additional skills, gain experience, and improve their judgment. Consequently, the retirement of experienced workers could mean loss of valuable S&E expertise and knowledge. However, the retirement of older workers also makes room for newly trained S&E workers who may bring updated skills and new approaches to solving problems (Stephan and Levin 1992).

The aging of the S&E labor force is reflected in rising median ages. In 2010, the median age of scientists and engineers in the labor force was 44 years, compared to 41 years in 1993. Another indicator of the aging of the S&E labor force is the increasing percentage of individuals in this labor force over age 50 (between the ages of 51 and 75) (figure 3-25). In 1993, about 1 in every 5 scientists and engineers in the labor force was in that age group (20%), whereas by 2010 the proportion rose to 1 out of 3 (33%).

Between 1993 and 2010, the proportion of scientists and engineers in the labor force over 50 years of age rose for both men and women; however, the female labor force continues to be younger relative to their male counterparts (figure 3-25). In 2010, 30% of female scientists and engineers in the labor force were between 51 and 75 years of age, compared to 36% of male scientists and engineers in the labor force. In 2010, the median ages in the SESTAT population were 42 years for women and 45 years for men, whereas in 1993 the median ages were 38 and 42, respectively.

Age Differences among Occupations

SESTAT respondents working in S&E occupations are younger than those in S&E-related or non-S&E occupations (figure 3-26). In 2010, 26% of those in S&E occupations were between 51 and 75 years of age compared with 34% of those in S&E-related occupations and 36% of those in non-S&E occupations. The median age of the SESTAT population employed in S&E occupations was 42 years, compared to 44 years among those employed in S&E-related occupations and 45 years among those employed in non-S&E occupations.

The age differences across S&E and non-S&E occupations were more pronounced for men than for women. Among male scientists and engineers, 27% of those employed in S&E occupations were between the ages of 51 and 75 compared with 41% of those employed in non-S&E occupations. Among female scientists and engineers, 24% of those employed in S&E occupations were between the ages of 51 and 75 compared with 30% of those employed in non-S&E occupations.

Age Differences among Degree Fields

Similar to the trend seen across broad occupational categories, S&E highest degree holders are generally younger than those holding highest degrees in S&E-related or non-S&E fields (figure 3-26). In 2010, 30% of S&E highest degree holders were between 51 and 75 years of age compared with 36% of those with highest degrees in S&E-related or non-S&E fields. However, degree holders in different S&E fields varied in their ages. S&E highest degree holders in the physical sciences, particularly the men in this group, were older than those in other S&E fields (appendix table 3-12). S&E highest degree holders in computer and mathematical sciences, in social sciences, and in engineering were relatively young.

Within broad degree areas, the age profile of different degree fields varies (appendix table 3-12). For example, within computer and mathematical sciences degree fields, 16% of highest degree holders in computer and information sciences were between 51 and 75 years of age compared with 39% of highest degree holders in mathematics and statistics. In all broad S&E fields of highest degree except computer and mathematical sciences, women were younger than their male counterparts (appendix table 3-12).

Retirement

The increasing proportion of the SESTAT labor force over 50 years of age raises the issue of how impending retirement will affect the supply of S&E workers. Patterns of labor force participation among older individuals provide useful information about potential retirement ages and how retirement ages may have changed over time.

Recent patterns of leaving the labor force and shifting to part-time work among older members of the workforce suggest that after age 55 the labor force participation rate among scientists and engineers begins to decline and is markedly reduced by the time workers reach their late 60s. One indication of the relationship between age and the level of labor force participation is illustrated by figure 3-27, which shows the proportions of older scientists and engineers working full time. In 2010, at age 50, 80% of scientists and engineers worked full time (35 hours or more per week) in their principal job. Among individuals in their mid- to late-50s, this proportion dropped steeply. Among those in their mid-60s, for example, only about one-third worked full time. The overall pattern of declining full-time participation starting in individuals’ mid- to late-50s held at all degree levels, although doctorate holders generally worked full time at higher rates than bachelor’s degree holders (figure 3-27).

Between 1993 and 2010, increasing proportions of SESTAT respondents in their 60s reported still being in the labor force. Whereas 69% of SESTAT respondents between the ages of 60 and 64 were in the labor force in 1993, this proportion rose to 74% in 2010. For those between the ages of 65 and 69, the proportion rose from 39% in 1993 to 47% in 2010.

Reasons provided by SESTAT respondents for labor force nonparticipation or part-time work status also shed light on the relationship between age and retirement. In 2010, about 2.5 million scientists and engineers reported that they were out of the labor force because of retirement. The vast majority (87%) of retired individuals were 60–75 years of age, and half of the retired individuals (51%) were between the ages of 67 and 75. Individuals with doctorates reported lower rates of retirement than those without doctorates (figure 3-28).

Retirement, however, does not always mean that workers permanently leave the labor force. After nominally retiring from their jobs, some workers continue to work part time, work in a different capacity, or decide to return to the labor market at a later time. About 1.4 million scientists and engineers employed in 2010 reported that they had previously retired from a job. A total of 653,000 scientists and engineers working part time in 2010 reported their reason for working part time as having “previously retired or semi-retired.” Individuals who chose to stay in or return to the labor market following an occurrence of retirement were younger (median age 62) than those who were out of the labor force following retirement (median age 67).

Compared to all employed scientists and engineers included in SESTAT, the 1.4 million SESTAT respondents who stayed in or returned to the workforce after having retired from a previous position were less likely to hold S&E jobs (18% versus 25% for all employed SESTAT respondents) or to work in areas closely related to their highest degree (46% versus 58% for all employed SESTAT respondents) and more likely to be self-employed in unincorporated businesses (17% versus 7% for all employed SESTAT respondents).

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