Opinion The federal workforce is aging. It’s time for a new generation.

(Washington Post staff illustration; iStock)
3 min

Anthony S. Fauci spent 54 years in government service, as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to President Biden. Max Stier is the president and CEO of the nonpartisan nonprofit, Partnership for Public Service.

The workforce of the U.S. government is aging. Today, just 7 percent of permanent full-time federal employees are younger than 30 compared with 20 percent in the broader labor market. Meanwhile, 31 percent of all government employees are eligible to retire by 2025.

Young people are keen. They are not the problem.

Federal leaders should pay more attention to hiring young people to sustain the workforce, and some managers have a tendency to hire for experience instead of building the talent bench. Recruiting on college campuses is suboptimal. Individuals younger than 30 who do apply are discouraged by lengthy and convoluted hiring processes and a pay system that is outdated.

To keep our democracy strong, vibrant and prepared for the future, the U.S. government needs to recruit and retain a new generation of idealistic, energetic, skilled and diverse individuals. This includes public health professionals, scientists, technologists, economists, engineers, cybersecurity experts, lawyers, Foreign Service officers and more.

We see hopeful signs. Recently, hundreds of college students and government interns turned out to hear us speak. They were eager to learn about opportunities to serve the public and make a difference. We related our own government experiences. One of us worked in public health spanning the AIDS crisis to the covid-19 pandemic. The other spent time in all three branches of government before heading an organization dedicated to its future.

We reflected on the value of public service, what a privilege it was to go to work every day to try to change lives for the better. We talked about many ways to make a difference. We were heartened by the enthusiasm of these young people. They peppered us with questions about identifying openings and the challenges of working in government.

Another hopeful sign were the results of the November midterm elections, which saw the second-highest youth turnout rate of the past 30 years and the election of the first member of Generation Z to Congress, 25-year-old Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.).

To capitalize on this youth engagement, here are four steps the government should take.

First, agencies must make greater use of student internships to assess talent and help those who excel to navigate the arduous hiring process. Second, Congress should expand the expedited hiring authorities created for students and college graduates. Few prospective civil servants will wait months to land a government job when other enticing opportunities are available immediately in the private sector.

Third, to improve campus recruiting, agencies should develop contemporary messages that resonate with young people. This marketing has been woefully absent compared with the private sector. Fourth, Congress should reform the rigid and outdated pay structure. With a compensation system that is occupation-specific and market-sensitive, only then will the government be able to compete for top talent in cutting-edge fields.

The truth is that the federal workforce is graying and hiring young people must be a priority. It is past time to make the reforms necessary to bring in the next generation of Americans who recognize that government service is a high calling.