FOR CHEMISTS, DOES LIFE END AFTER 45? (1998)
Since my previous ACS Comment describing the problem of a middle-aged chemist in a struggle to find employment, I received numerous communications from members reporting on the difficulties they faced when they had to look for employment in their forties or at a later age. At a recent gathering of ACS members receiving their 50 year membership certificates, the large majority was commenting on their problems in the 70-s and 80-s when they were forced to find job because of downsizing or reorganization of their company which they joined after obtaining their degree. In contrast, twenty years ago the fifty year members unanimously looked back happily to their long career in chemistry. What happened? Why did this generation have such a different experience? What will the 50 years members say in 2017 when they recount their career?
No doubt a large number of fifty year members still have pleasant memories of chemistry, however there is no question that the 70-s and 80-s caught a number of 45+ years old chemists and chemical engineers looking for new employment, not by choice, and finding it difficult to locate one. Not so long ago there was an ACS President who claimed that it was their own fault because they did not keep up with new technology. He added that only the incompetent can not find employment. The security of living in an ivory tower can blur someone's vision. Assuming for the sake of argument that some may not have kept in line with new development, since this generation was not different from the previous one, why did not the latter have the same problem? No doubt he would say, if he were still alive, that the changes were greater during the mid-life of this generation than the previous one, but this is relative. Every generation thinks that the changes were different during their career.
While many reasons could be listed, the main difference between the life of the two generations is that, for various reasons, the employers' attitude toward their scientific employees undergone marked changes during the past 25 years. It is undeniable that the number of jobs available in chemistry decreased and in spite of some improvement it is unlikely to get back to the level of the 60-s barring a national emergency. We can hear statements that the young graduates should look for employment in non-traditional chemical branches, but our educational system is still geared for the traditional areas. However, even this would not solve the problem. While young graduates still find employment, some after 2-3 involuntary postdoc positions, very frequently they replace the old ones whose "non-traditional" employment may become selling insurance or real estate.
At the National Employment Clearing House (NCEH) the ratio of jobs offered to job seekers registered improved during the past 12-18 months, from 1:3.5 to 1:2. It is still far from the 4:1 ratio of the sixties, but for the superficial examiner this might appear that we turned the corner and there is no longer any problem. However, this is a shortsighted, wishful thinking. The registrants looking for employment at NCEH are almost exclusively under 35-40 years young. During the past years the older persons learned the futility of registering at NECH, because they are rarely interviewed and even more rarely do they receive a job offer. While the interviewer might state that the older ones just do not have the "necessary background", the fact remains economic. Industrial organizations continuously complain that the new graduates do not have the necessary acumen needed for industrial work, but they still hire them over the older experienced ones, because they cost less. For those who consider research as a line item expense instead as a long range investment a $40K/year scientist is a better investment than one with $60K/year.
So is there a solution, and if there is one, what is it? The greatest problem is the solution is not simple, we need to implement a number of them simultaneously and this needs cooperation. Judith Giordan who barely missed out to be the second youngest ACS President in the closest ACS Presidential election during the past 20 years stated that "We are all in this together". This has eternal validity and unless we work together our profession is going to decline.
1. Industry must stop handling research cost as a day-to-day investment, however it has a legitimate complaint that today's graduates are not adequately prepared for research in an industrial environment.
2. Academe must adapt to the need of industry both qualitatively and quantitatively, however it needs an adequate labor force to carry out its research which frequently forms the basis for industrial development.
3. Chemical professionals must realize that learning is a lifelong process and it does not stop after graduation, however, especially with the decreasing industrial jobs they should not be forced by the surplus of chemists.
Surplus of chemists! I am sure some of the readers will protest that we are facing a shortage because young Americans do not choose chemistry as a profession. However, let's be totally honest and face the facts. Regardless of how we look at it, there is a surplus. It is elementary, my dear ex-President! When the number of jobs are decreasing, but we are still producing the same number of chemists, there is a surplus. The majority of those 45+ years young are not unemployed because they did not keep up with new developments, but because the same continuous stream of new graduates at a lower salary level appear as the easiest solution to control the bottom line on December 31.
I do not argue that young American do not enter our profession in the same number as 30 years ago. They do not, but not because the lack of interest in chemistry. It is because most of those who choose other professions not only want to have a job upon graduation, but they do not care for the danger of switching profession at the age of 45.
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