The Itinerant Scientist and Delayed Retirement

For some time, I’ve been bothered about the rapid exit of scientists from the scientific job market after they reach about 55 years old. What happened to my school chums? Society seems to be losing trained talent 10 years early. Can America really afford to support expensive graduate training for less than 30 years of productivity from the graduates? For most people, the period from 55 to 65 is very productive. It is a time when we should be accumulating assets to support our golden years. For many chemists, however, especially those working in industry, something seems to be going wrong. They vanish before reaching 60. What’s going on?

The cause is more understandable if one looks at both the personal and macroscopic factors. They are coinciding to almost wipe out my contemporaries. Even worse, extrapolation of these factors portends an even more dire future for the following generation of scientists and engineers—today’s graduates.

Macroeconomic influences

In the current recovery, corporate restructuring (mergers, acquisitions, and leveraged buyouts) is running amok. Many traditional employers of chemists, including old-line chemical, fuel, and pharmaceutical firms, will be “flipped” several times in 25 years. After the first buyout or merger, involved firms “restructure,” which invariably means reducing staff to improve productivity and hone the short-term focus. These cycles repeat, so unless you are essential in the mainstream of the firm’s core technology, the chances of being employed at full retirement age are slim indeed.

Firms also change, even if they are fortunate enough to resist consolidation. Products age—just look at Polaroid, which rode the instant photography boom for 40 years and has now succumbed to the megapixel imager. When I was a kid, phonograph records were hot; then it was eight-tracks, followed rapidly by cassettes, then CDs, and now flash storage chips that empower Apple’s iPod and iPad. You could be the “go-to” man on tape storage, and within less than a decade, be flotsam and jetsam.

On the personal side, three factors may be working:

  1. Technical obsolescence: The technical training you receive in college and graduate school depreciates with age, as technology advances. I estimate that the half-life is about 10 years. Part of the decline is due to advances in subject matter. Another factor is aging and the associated decline in proficiency in things that we have not practiced for years. “Use it or lose it,” and you didn’t, so. . .. Do the math: At 55 years of age, three half-lives have expired and the graying hairs have only about 10% of the skills of this year’s graduate.
  2. Compensation factor: Generally, you earn and receive a merit increase (typically about 2.5% per year), plus overhead increases due to increased vacation and medical insurance. These compound yearly, so that after about 30 years, the compensation package is about twice the starting salary. This means that a manager can hire two chemists for about the same expense as one experienced chemist. For high performers, three new hires might even be cost neutral.
  3. “Pass over”: It goes something like this: A manager considering a new assignment asks, Why invest in a 55-year-old who might retire before the project is completed? If I invest in a younger person, I might get 25 additional years.

If you are not on the advancement list, you are about to be benched, with obvious consequences. These three and perhaps other factors have decimated the employment of the 50+-year-old professionals, particularly in industrial firms.

The future

But wait—things are about to get worse! Congress wants to modify Social Security by extending the full retirement age to 75 years. This means that a chemist who graduates in 2012 at the age of 25 is looking at a career of 50 years until “full retirement.” This is five half-lives in technology. Run the math: Your original training will have lost 97% of its relevancy.

What to do? The demographic and macroeconomic trends above indicate that a scientist or engineer should anticipate working for several employers during his or her career. There are many models for itinerant (short-term) employment: camp followers, mercenaries, circuit riders, circuit judges, and the Tross are names that come to mind as role models. The common element is that each worked an audience until it was time to move on. When the money dried up, they moved to a new location and repeated the cycle. The key was tuning the repertoire or service to please the audience of the day.

Similarly, you have to take charge by recognizing the nature of modern employment. Only you can manage your career. Your future, including retirement, will depend on how well you perform. As you turn 40, you should take stock of where you are and what is going on in your specialty. Is the technology used across a broad base, or is it a niche? Is the technology vulnerable to replacement? Are you a recognized leader in it? If the future does not seem attractive, it is time to look for an opportunity to catch a ride on a different train, hopefully one that is going somewhere interesting. . .to you. This usually means planning a career change.

The easiest thing to do is to look for extension of a familiar technology into a new application area. For example, 30 years ago, LC added MS and quickly expanded into LC-MS of drugs, then to proteomics, and is now entering clinical diagnostics. This is an exceptionally long run of well-funded applications. In contrast, what has happened to gravimetric determinations of calcium in water or analysis of petroleum by distillation? You could have years of experience in these techniques, and few would know or care.

There are some general trends you can use to predict the future: Generally, technology expands into new enabled applications while evolving into smaller, more sensitive, quicker, and lower labor content. If you are experienced in a growing technology or application, then look for opportunities to extend the application to new detection limits, faster, or remove labor-intensive pain points. Always be attuned to changes, which are usually opportunities.