The Aging Federal Workforce Needs ‘New Blood,’ Experts Say

There are twice as many workers over age 60 as there are under 30.

It’s a trend no healthy organization wants to see—a workforce that grows progressively older every year, with diminishing appeal for talented young people. That’s the position the federal government is in today. The number of workers over 60 is almost double the population under 30. 

It’s a problem, said University of Texas Professor Donald Kettl, because it’s not just about replacing the older workers, but replacing them with, “a different kind of workforce for the future”—one prepared to manage in the age of social media and data analytics.

According to the most recent federal workforce data from the Office of Personnel Management, as of June 2018, 14% of the federal workforce is over 60, while just 7.8% is under 30 (out of a population of 2,099,149). Twenty years ago, the over-60 population represented 5.7% of the workforce, while 7.5% of the workforce was under 30. The chart below illustrates the problem (Government Executive did not include data for workers under 20). 

Professional Services Council President and CEO David Berteau said there are three main issues with this dynamic. The first is that there are not enough people in the existing pipeline to take over when the over-60 cohort retires. Secondly, experience matters with government work, so replacements may not have time to acquire the skills they need to successfully fill such positions when older employees retire. “You have to have been through the cycles that government operates under,” Berteau said. “You have to have figured out how the government does its job through these cycles.” Lastly, older workers tend to not have as much technical expertise as the younger ones do, so there is a different kind of skills gap among the over-60 demographic.

Berteau also pointed to another problem: As the government increasingly turns to contractors to meet the demands of federal missions, it doesn’t have enough skilled personnel to manage that contract work effectively. According to Marketplace, a nonprofit economic news organization, the number of government contractors rose from about 3 million in 1996 to 4.1 million in 2017. Every year, Berteau said, he hears from  members who tell him agency contracting officers complain that “there are not enough of us, our plate is full, we can’t do any more contracts this year.” He said contractors do a better job of recruiting and retaining younger workers than the federal government—often in direct competition with agencies—and he expects the challenge will get worse over time as the older workers retire.  

For years, federal officials have been anticipating a retirement wave, yet the percentage of older workers as a share of the workforce has continued to climb. OPM data show the Housing and Urban Development Department, Environmental Protection Agency, NASA and Treasury Department have the highest rates of retirement-eligible employees. 

However, the Pew Research Center reported in July that baby boomers—adults between 55 and 73—are staying in the workforce at higher rates than previous generations at their age. Kettl attributes this to their ability and desire to work longer, as well as  financial necessity in some cases. The public sector workforce also tends to be older than that of the private sector. The average federal sector worker is 46, compared to 42 in the private sector, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

“If there’s not sufficient turnover, then it’s going to be that much more difficult to be able to get that new blood into the workforce that so many people have identified as being necessary,” Kettl said.