Data: Public Servants Are Older Than Almost Everyone In the American Workforce

New statistics have those in all levels of government pushing 50 years old.

As many of our readers have complained, the stereotypes of civil servants run the gamut from "slow" to "lazy" to, increasingly, "old." Unfortunately, that third stereotype seems to be rooted in truth.

According to an analysis by data scientist and blogger Randal Olson, the oldest profession in the U.S. workforce is funeral home employee and the youngest is shoe salesperson. Olson looked at 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics data and found that the average age of someone working in shoe sales is 25.6 years old and the average age of a funeral home worker is 53.1.

What does this have to do with the government workforce getting older? Public servants' median age (45.6) is closer to the embalming and casket industry than it is to the boot and sandal industry and public finance employees have the eighth-oldest median age of all workers in the labor force.

With the caveat that BLS doesn't break down public administration into state, local and federal, the statistics show that no category of public administration job notches a median age younger than 42.6 ("Justice, public order, and safety activities"). In addition to quinquagenarian public finance employees, "administration of economic programs and space research" workers have a median age of 48.8.

We have covered the potential so-called "retirement wave" in federal service here at GovExec.com and the BLS statistics speak to the aging workforce. Politico reported last year that only 17 percent of the federal government's workforce is younger than 35—according to BLS, the median age of those working at gas stations—and that more than 25 percent of feds are over 55.

Polling has shown that Americans want "the best people" in government service regardless of age, but how can government hire younger? When Politico reported on the aging federal workforce, personnel experts said the government has done a poor job of recruiting and lacks a good hiring strategy.

"It’s not so much a matter that old people are stupid and young people are smart," University of Texas professor and Government Executive contributor Don Kettl said. "It’s that smart agencies develop a plan for a pipeline. The federal government’s biggest problem is it’s not very good at pipeline planning."

Even recent Trump administration hiring initiatives have stalled. The hiring of new deportation officers at Immigration and Customs Enforcement dropped to 371 total in 2017, for example, half the 2016 total. Anecdotally, our readers and reporting have shown generational differences in the federal government, the problems with hiring younger feds and the hiring challenges associated with politicians criticizing the federal workforce. Even local attempts are making government seem "cool" have faltered.

As the administration seeks to implement a major reorganization, agencies will need to figure out how to hire more young people to fill the ranks. The private sector may offer some models, but government leaders may want to steer clear of the funeral industry.