Older programmers are more knowledgeable, but harder to find

U.S. labor data suggests that a significant portion of programmers leave the job in middle age

Yesterday, I wrote about two studies based on Stack Overflow data suggesting that, as they age, programmers become more knowledgeable about programming, including newer technologies. Those data also suggested something else about older programmers: namely, that there aren’t many of them - at all. This peaked my interest enough that I wanted to look into it a little further to see if programmers tend to leave the profession as they get older.

older_person-290x218_0.jpgImage credit: REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett
Not your average programmer

Using the Stack Overflow user base as a proxy for programmers, it certainly seems that programmers flee the profession in droves after around age 40. In 2011, Peter Knego looked at the age distribution of 37,400 Stack Overflow users and found the age with the most developers was 27 (with just over 2,500), with the population halving every 6-7 years after that; by age 40 there were just over 500. In the more recent study, Patrick Morrison and Emerson Murphy-Hill of North Carolina State University looked at the age distribution of over 84,000 Stack Overflow users and found a mean age of 29, with a standard deviation of 7. Assuming a normal distribution, this suggest that 97.5% of developers are age 43 or younger.

Those are striking numbers if they reflect the general programmer universe. However, the obvious caveat is that Stack Overflow users are a self-selecting population, not a random selection of programmers. To evaluate whether there's a dearth of older programmers, I looked at recent data for U.S. workers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Using age and occupation data from 2011, here’s the distribution of developers and programmers, relative to the entire workforce and the subset of all professional occupations:

First off, the median age for computer programmers (42), software developers (39) and web developers (37) are all younger than that for the general labor force (42) and professionals in general (43). Looking at the distributions across age groups, when computer programmers, software and web developers are combined into one group, we see that over 60% are aged 25 to 44, as compared to 43% for all workers and 48% for all professionals. Only 30% of the programmer/developer population is 45 or older (compared to 35% and 38% for all workers and professionals, respectively). This indicates that, while programmers are indeed younger than the general workforce, and professionals in general, the Stack Overflow population is definitely younger than the general programmer population.

However, while the  programmer/developer population continues to grow through the 25-44 grouping, there is a significant drop going from the 35-44 to the 45-54 cohorts (31% to 21%), as opposed to a slight increase for the general labor force; the numbers are the same for those two cohorts across all professionals. These results could partly be due to the increase in programming jobs over the years; presumably, fewer people were getting into programming 30 years ago. But the data also suggest that, once they get to their 40s, a noticeable percentage of programmers do seem to be leaving the profession, though not quite to the dramatic extent that the Stack Overflow data suggest.

But where do those middle-aged programmers go? Do they leave programming completely, due to burnout or for a career switch, or are they moving up into management positions? Unfortunately, these data can’t tell us that, but it would be nice to know. Given the value of older programmers, and the shortage of programming talent, if burnout were a problem it would be worth it to the industry to try and alleviate it in order to retain these valuable workers.

Are you a former programmer? Why did you leave the job? Promotion or career switch? Please share in the comments.

Read more of Phil Johnson's #Tech blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Phil on Twitter at @itwphiljohnson. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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