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The average age of scientists and engineers has increased rapidly, and will continue to do so in the coming decades, according to a recent study by economists at Ohio State University.

The study showed that the average age of employed scientists increased from 45.1 to 48.6 between 1993 and 2010 – faster than the workforce as a whole. It also projects that the average age will increase by an additional 2.3 years assuming factors remain the same.

The findings raise questions and possible concerns over whether aging scientists are as productive and innovative compared to younger generations of researchers just beginning their careers.

However, the evidence is still lacking to support either side of the debate.

“We don’t have the answers yet, but we are continuing to investigate the implications of our aging scientific workforce,” said Bruce Weinberg, co-author of the study and professor of economics at Ohio State.

Weinberg and fellow co-author David Blau used data from the National Science Foundation’s 1993 to 2010 Survey of Doctorate Recipients. They gathered detailed information on age, field of degree, job tenure, employment history, occupation and sector of employment of 73,000 scientists 76-years-old or younger. They also used Census data as a supplement.

According to the study, 18 percent of scientists were 55 and older in 1993, but that number jumped to 33 percent in 2010. In comparison, the number of all workers 55 and older increased from 15 to 23 percent during the same time period.

This increase could be attributed to the large number of people in the baby boom generation getting older, but Weinberg and Blau also point to another factor – scientists have been working longer since mandatory retirement of university professors was eliminated in 1994.

“Even after the baby boom generation is long gone from the workforce, the scientific workforce will still continue to get older,” said Blau in a university release. “Scientists are retiring later and that will continue to have an effect.”

The increased aging was consistent across nearly all STEM fields, including computer and information science, which historically has had a younger workforce than other fields. According to the study, the average age of computer scientists is actually increasing more rapidly than other fields, narrowing the historical gap.

The growth in the number of women and the number of immigrants working in science had no real effect on the age of the workforce, the study found.

But the findings pose another intriguing question – is the graying scientific workforce preventing younger generations from entering STEM fields?

The researchers are using the study results as part of a larger project to help answer this question and determine how aging affects scientists’ creativity and productivity.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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