The number of executive branch employees retiring this fiscal year, which ends next month, is on track to be nearly twice the total who retired in 2009, according to government figures. And the rate looks certain to accelerate. In 2000, about 94,000 people age 60 and older worked for the government. Last year, the number was 262,000.
The exits are helping to bring down the size of the federal payroll and — where funding is available — could afford agencies the chance to hire younger workers with crucial skills. The retirement of clerks could clear the way for experts in cybersecurity and information technology.
But among those leaving are people with specific expertise that cannot easily be replaced — for instance, nuclear physicists at the Energy Department and a large cohort of air traffic controllers who were hired three decades ago. And with most hiring on hold, the departures are already reshaping agencies that cannot replace most of the retirees or mentor and train new executives.
In some corners of government, the challenge is acute. By 2016, 42 percent of the Department of Housing and Urban Development workforce will be eligible to retire. At the Small Business Administration, it’s 44 percent.
There is no mandatory retirement age for most civilian federal employees. But retiring is looking ever more attractive, employees say, with their salaries frozen for three years by Congress and public service demonized by many politicians.
“It finally got to the point where I got disillusioned,” said Richard Swensen, 60, who retired from the Agriculture Department last year after 38 years. “You get weary of the bureaucrat-bashing.”
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Today’s federal civil servants are much grayer than they were a decade ago. Their average age is 47, four years older than the overall workforce.
Retirements have fluctuated since the mid-1990s. The numbers surged when the Clinton administration offered early retirement incentives as part of a push to “reinvent government.” After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2011, the government ramped up its hiring for national security positions, and federal payrolls swelled.
Baby boomers began trickling out in about 2005, but the financial crisis and deep recession that hit a couple of years later discouraged many from leaving. Departures from the executive branch bottomed out in 2009. They have been increasing ever since and are on track to exceed 80,000 retirements — about 5 percent of the workforce — by the end of the fiscal year, according to figures from the Office of Personnel Management. It’s already the largest outflow in at least two decades.