Making the Most of America’s Aging Scientific Workforce

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Making the Most of America’s Aging Scientific Workforce

At Trends, we’ve been discussing for years how scientific progress has slowed the onset of aging, allowing people in the U.S. to live longer, healthier, and more productive lives beyond the traditional retirement age. Ironically, those same scientific advances have triggered what Science magazine has termed a “crisis” in the scientific community: The average age of U.S. scientists is rapidly getting older.

In a study published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, economists at Ohio State University found that the average age of employed scientists increased from 45.1 to 48.6 years between 1993 and 2010, which is a greater increase than the workforce as a whole.1

And that’s not all: The study estimates that, if nothing changes, the average age of U.S. scientists will increase by another 2.3 years in the near future. According to David Blau, co-author of the study and professor of economics at Ohio State, “The aging of the scientific workforce is not over—not by a longshot.”

That prognosis raises such concerns as:

  • Older scientists may not be as creative or productive as younger scientists.
  • The refusal of older scientists to retire might prevent younger scientists from entering the field.

However, those implications haven’t been proven, according to co-author Bruce Weinberg, also a professor of economics at Ohio State, who explained, “We don’t have the answers yet, but we are continuing to investigate the implications of our aging scientific workforce.”

The researchers used Census statistics and the 1993-2010 National Science Foundation’s Survey of Doctorate Recipients to generate their data for roughly 73,000 scientists aged 76 or younger.

Their results showed that two factors are responsible for the recent aging of the scientific workforce:

  1. Millions of people in the Baby Boom generation are getting older, and scientists in that largest of all generations are no exception.
  2. Scientists have been retiring later since a 1994 law ended the mandatory retirement of university professors.

As Weinberg explained, “We have scientists who prior to 1994 would have been forced to retire who are now working to older and older ages.”

As of 2010, 33 percent of scientific workers were aged 55 and older, up from just 18 percent in 1993. That’s a big difference from the age breakdown for the overall U.S. workforce, where the share of all workers 55 and older increased at a much slower rate, from 15 to 23 percent in the same time period.

The study found that the average age of scientists in nearly every discipline is rising...

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