MIT alumni in their 50s

I attended an MIT alumni gathering last week. There was a slight selection bias in that all those present were people whom an on-campus group was hoping to get donations from. Inadvertently it turned out to be an interesting look into what typical career paths look like once people are 50-60 (though remember that those who’d been complete financial failures had been screened out).

The medical doctor was at the peak of his career and in no danger of being fired. The university professor had the security of tenure and was looking forward to a defined benefit pension starting six years from now. The corporate attorney was finishing up a prosperous career. The engineers who’d chosen to work in industry, however, were a varied lot. A woman who’d taken a job at a defense contractor was still there, 30 years later. The super-wizard Lisp Machine programmer was now in a senior technical, but non-supervisory role, at a multi-billion dollar dotcom (not necessarily getting paid more than a competent 30-year-old, however). About half of the engineers, however, talked about being pushed into a financially uncomfortable early retirement and/or not being able to find work. Aside from the government-related work, the world of these alums does seem be consistent with Dave Winer’s recent “I would have hired Doug Engelbart” posting (summary: age discrimination is surmountable if you happen to have been one of the most successful engineers of all time (see The Demo from 1968, featuring everything that you’re using right now, except maybe for Patchmania)).

Lesson: Unless you are confident that your skills are very far above average, don’t take a career path that subjects you to the employment market once you’re over 50 (and/or make sure that by age 50 you’ve saved enough for a retirement that begins at age 50 or 55 and during which you won’t have employer-provided health insurance for up to a 15-year gap between age 50 and Medicare age).

21 thoughts on “MIT alumni in their 50s

  1. Is there s large pool of unemployed engineers 50+? Does it show in unemployment statistics? What happens with those poor souls, what other lines of work do they move to? Playing XBox? I thought that recent statistics showed huge unemployment among young adults and relative little unemployment for skilled college educated workforce. Is it still true? Do old engineers get hired as in-home babysitters instead of suspicious foreign workers? What is average market cleaning wage for old engineers?

  2. Anon: A person who is living off the wages of a spouse or living off savings is not in traditional “unemployment” statistics because that person is not unemployed by definition (due to not being an active seeker of work). shows the aggregate labor force participation rate, which is where you’d see a person who’d dropped out of the labor force. breaks things down by age but not by occupation. talks about how older workers have disproportionately kept working since the 2009 expansions of welfare. Except for SSDI older workers tend not to be eligible for government assistance, notably because they seldom have minor children.

  3. Thanks. Will check out Casey Mulligan’s book. I though engineers tend to marry other engineers? Anecdotal evidence suggests the engineers marrying doctors dropping out of workforce by age 40, not 50. Same for people who can financially retire at 50, they could become employers if they choose to. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that in late 90s lots of ‘engineers’ were kicked up into economy who rather were hurting their employers and that workforce hired to ‘fix’ Y2K issue are disproportionately dropped off working rolls in past decade. Do not have hard data though. Here is another point of view from an economist who was expecting credit bubble: .

  4. Anon has good questions, and from what I’ve seen his implication is correct, the situation is bad for people over 50 but really, really bad for people entering the workforce. Also, people in their 30s and 40s are more likely to be employed than any other demographic, but their own labor participation rate is lower than other decades (it used to be close to 100% and is now in the high 70s, as opposed to the high 50s for the population at large).

    The fact is that there simply not enough jobs to employ everyone, a consequence of two big expansions of the workforce in a short time (encouraging women to enter the work force, and high immigration rates), and anemic GDP growth rates.

    One point that occurred to me is that the people in this antidote are in their 50s (essentially late Boomers), meaning they first entered the workforce in the 1980s. Employment prospects for new entrants in the US started getting alot worse around 1991. People coming after that may not have the option of a career path that doesn’t subject them to the employment market.

  5. philg,

    I’m not sure how the second link in your comment supports your point, as it shows the participation rate for most 55+ cohorts increasing over the 1992-2002, and 2002-2012 time periods. Most of the decrease in participation rates appear to be accounted for by the 55- cohort. Am I missing something?



  6. Hal: As noted above, according to Mulligan, the U Chicago economics professor who wrote the referenced book, the ineligibility of older Americans for the most attractive welfare programs explains why their labor force participation rate did not fall as it did for, e.g., single mothers.

    As for whether the anecdotal data from the MIT gathering is consistent with the BLS data I don’t think that is a meaningful question because the BLS data is not broken down by occupation. The continued employment of a 57-year-old government worker, for example, doesn’t tell you anything about the employability of a 57-year-old engineer whose last employer was shut down.

  7. What you describe is consistent with what I’ve seen. At some point his 50s, the hot shot company that the engineer went to work for in his 20s or 30s (say Sun) runs out of steam, engineer gets laid off and has no prospect of receiving comparable employment. Either he retires early and putters in his garage or he takes a new job (maybe part time) far beneath his prior wages. Our society has become ruthless – it’s up or out.

  8. BTW, would it make sense to hire Doug Englebart in his older days? Yes, he did amazing things in ’68, but what contributions would he be capable of NOW, now that the world that he imagined already exists and he is is not up on today’s cutting edge computer architectures, languages, etc.

    My late father-in-law was a brilliant engineer in the truck trailer field – he designed some of the components of the standardized shipping container, so that his work has been reproduced millions of times (the standard is in the public domain so he never received a cent of royalties, which would have gone to his employer in any case). But he never made the transition to computers and he never could get the hang of them, even to send an email. No matter how many times I showed him how to do it, it never stuck. So the world had passed him by – he got a few consulting gigs in his later years, but they did not amount to much.

  9. I’ve also seen a lot of engineers in their 50s not keep up technically, hence hurting their marketability.

  10. Keeping up technically gets more and more demanding as you age, not just from simply aging, but because you’ve built up a life and other interests. Learning new skills for work each week or month is no longer an exciting amusement, it’s a stressful grind, even if you have the cognitive ability to pull it off in your 50s and 60s.

    It’s very crazy and recent to expect people to learn what used to be a lifetime’s worth of skills in a few weeks or months and then keep doing it again and again for the exact same salary. Engineers, programmers, etc, are not being paid commensurate with the skill treadmill they’re expected to be on.

    I’m not saying the “Boeing way”, where people learn a very narrow set of skills for an entire career is the only or best way to go, but the other, more common extreme is clearly not going to last. People simply can’t keep up the pace indefinitely, especially for no wage increase.

  11. The engineers are by and large, employees; and as a result of the stupidity of MBA education during the last few decades, they are seen as easily-replaced cogs, one cog not being much different than another.

    The doctor is in a protected profession – Hillary Clinton, in the 1990s, crowed about being able to reduce the number of doctors being trained – see ; as if having less doctors automatically would reduce concomitant health care costs!

    University teachers – again, once tenure is gained, a protected profession.

    I would argue that most corporate attorneys, are a net drain on the economy. Not sure if I need to explain that… in any case, the multitude of gov’t regulations guarantees a certain number of jobs for lawyers.

    Protected profession? All is well.

    Free market profession? The ability to offshore jobs, bring in H1Bs etc. has led to declines in real-world, inflation-adjusted earnings.

  12. This is depressing. I am just today turning 39 years old and work as a bioinformatician (a mix of biological big data mining, software engineering, and biomedical science) at a pharma company in Germany. This basically means I must within the next 10 years move into a supervisory-role position or get shelved as “past the expiration date”.

  13. In software engineering, development and programming it is easy to upgrade skills – it is all symbolic logic based. New framework can be really understood easily – same old symbolic logic under the hood and source code is readily available. Quite easy to keep with improving hardware characteristics while old skills in assembler, c, lisp, relational algebra (sql), tree-based algos and processor arithmetic is always an asset.

  14. @Anon, yes, but there is a paradigm shift, too. Agile vs. waterfall, centralized vs. distributed. And tool experience does matter. For grins I just searched (Boston, MA) for various keywords. The numbers:

    git: 474
    subversion: 237
    ClearCase: 64

    jira: 254
    remedy: 98
    clearquest 24

    And on the soon the shift side, perhaps:

    AWS: 533
    VMware: 511
    Azure: 103
    Docker: 111
    Heroku: 32
    Openshift: 26

  15. @Colin,
    Computer paradigm has not changed since 50th, I have succesfuly worked with half of technologies you list plus other and they are easy to get up top speed for, especially open source git & subversion. Cloud is not very new any longer, started to work with web farms one decade ago when they were already established. AWS/Azure make things easier (both are linux based and can ran any OS VMs), there is MS SQL Server for Azure, nowdays skill gap to jump to Cloud is minimal and the systems are publicly available.
    Agile was always there , starting with RAD, XP in mid/late 90s and scrum makes things easier for developers, not harder. Sure it is hard for someone who was asleep for the past 30 years to learn it all together.

  16. Scientists fair much worse than engineers. They are considered over the hill by age 40. I tell my family and friends that if I don’t start publishing and patenting a lot more I will have to find a new career in only 10 more years!

    The American Chemical Society collects highly optimistic employment data for chemists but it still shows an unpleasant increase in unemployment in a chemist’s 40’s.

  17. A woman who’d taken a job at a defense contractor was still there, 30 years later.

    In my experience in the mid-to-late ’80s as a software engineer at a large defense contractor, women engineers quickly moved into project management and they, and the minuscule few that remained doing real engineering, were a protected class of employee.

    I suspect forty years of H-1B tech immigrants have had a deleterious affect on American-born engineers of all ages.

  18. The medical doctor was at the peak of his career and in no danger of being fired.

    And probably earns the highest income among the group. My 50 y/o brother retains his medical license but hasn’t practiced in 15 years; he does far better, financially, earning $500K annually as a medical director for a large insurance company. But he wants his pre-teen sons to go into engineering.

  19. Of my MD friends, I find they focus too much on the negatives of their profession, they really should balance it out with the realities others with similar training face! I have to calm them down by pointing out they are in no danger of being fired as long as they keep showing up and doing their job. I also tell them a few stories:

    When I was in academia, another postdoc (who obtained a PhD from a far more prestigious institution than me) started working in the lab and could not get my boss’ great idea to work after many months. He was ridiculed for months and my boss threatened to call the police on him unless he left the building right that instant. He fortunately could not really be fired, but his funding was not extended and he had to sleep on our couches and finally go back to his foreign country without a job. The university could find no proof of wrong doing on his part. He was just doing his job, it just wasn’t making my boss more famous.

  20. So the moral of the story is: You will do well late in your life if you learn to extract money from sick people or those who have legal trouble.

    Predatory, but true.

  21. I’m 43 and I do worry about this. But… not so much.

    You see, in this career you have to be willing to drop everything and learn a new thing. All the time. Make learning new things part of your career.

    My strategy is to watch for the “next big thing” and stay at the leading edge of that. 10 years ago, for me, it was the Ruby language, and that has borne much fruit. Now it looks like it’s becoming Elixir, so I’ve been building up a portfolio in that language… just for fun (and maybe profit. Well… Probably profit, down the line.)

    I may not stay as fast as the newest coders, but I will write better code in less time than the guy who writes faster code with more embedded technical debt, and I’m pretty sure that my ability to mentor others is top-notch, and any good company with 40+ cohorts in management (if also including younger on the front lines) is going to recognize all of that.

    I also think that (like it or not… and yep, I struggle with this too) it’s even more important as you age to stay on top of your health… especially in a sedentary job like engineering. It may be a conflating variable here- the demands of family and career (in addition to the effects of age) may add to an engineer’s waistline and double-chin and consequently reduce his “oomph” (or to put it blunter, his T), and ALL of this may contribute to a distaste by the younger in hiring the 50+ engineer… Not the age itself, per se, but what may typically come along with it. It would be interesting to see statistics which took fitness into consideration.

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