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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- “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.
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.