A developer colleague at work, let’s call him Joe, approached me in a panic. He was a year from retirement and had just done some calculations on what his monthly pension would be. A third of his current income would not be enough to keep the lights on. I recommended he look at some freelancing sites. Joe has come to the unhappy conclusion that, like it or not, he is probably going to be programming till the day he dies.
At one time, programming was an obscure occupation, as were the machines being programmed. Computers weren’t always ubiquitous denizens of our homes and pockets. Once they were small enough to not take up one or more rooms, they found themselves inhabiting office spaces primarily.
This was the time of older, somewhat “nerdy” men epitomizing the public view of a professional computer programmer. Of course, at the end of the second decade of the 21st century, this has been turned completely on its head in every way.
The modern image of a programmer is a young, fresh-faced kid possibly not even out of college yet in some cases. A visit to the Seattle offices of Microsoft or Google will make even barely-middle-aged people feel rather elderly.
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This begs several questions, of course. Is the world of programming akin to setting of Logan’s Run, where at the age of 30, they’re hunted down and terminated? Do they simply make such great wages that they can retire young?
Unsurprisingly, the answer to this quandary isn’t as cut and dry as one would initially expect, especially nowadays.
Where Are the Grey-Haired Software Engineers?
The biggest reason young people are almost always the public faces of this occupation are a marketing and PR strategy. New, evolving technology is often associated with newer, younger generations (more in this in a bit).While it is true that younger generations often adapt to and embrace new concepts more readily than their seniors, this stereotype is losing ground rapidly as the baby boomer generation takes their place as the “elderly” generation.
The truth is, older software developers don’t disappear, or as a Redditor so cleverly claimed, “decompile”. Programmers employed by a stable, prosperous company actually climb the corporate ladder like anyone else with an ounce of ambition.
Developers who’ve worked in a department for years move on to become project managers, supervisors or heads of R&D. Meanwhile, fresh blood is brought in to fill the roles of active developers. This can actually be very visibly seen with the game company, Nintendo.
Mr. Shigeru Miyamoto, in his youth, was one of the first publicly-known programmers, taking an active development role in many of the company’s hit franchises early on. Today, he’s a producer, supervisor and director. He’s a rare case where he remains a public face of the company, where most developers duck away from the camera when taking on such immense responsibilities.
Another big contributor to this illusion is the modern remote-freelance approach to development. Contracted programmers not actually part of company “staff” have largely embraced this new, commute-free way to work. The result of this is that a lot of programming work comes from seemingly faceless sources working quietly from their own homes.
This is actually especially popular with older programmers whom have the reputation and notoriety to really excel in this environment with minimal fuss.
None of these things account the entirety of these seemingly missing senior software developers, though. The truth is that quite a few of them have indeed retired or moved on to pursue other interests (more on this later as well).
Most developers whom would be considered “old” today worked in the field when it was quite a different ecosystem. It was a very specialty skill, even as PCs were catching on in the mid-1990s.
A good programmer could indeed make a decent salary with a solid retirement plan and benefits. Add to this that many developers have a very logical mind and a skill with numbers, meaning they would be more likely to be smart with their money. This did provide an opportunity for quite a few programmers from the PC revolution to retire as early as their mid-40s.
Can the Average Older Programmer Afford to Retire?
This isn’t a question with a single right answer. It depends on a great many factors. First of all, what sort of programming are they doing? Game developers working for large and reputable studios should theoretically be able to retire after seeing five or so successful AAA titles through to the end. Of course, as we all know, not all studios are so reputable …
In-house software developers for reputable companies should still be able to count on a decent benefits and retirement package if they’re willing to put the work into it. Successful programmers in this environment should find themselves climbing the previously-mentioned ladder, taking on more responsibilities as they grow older and wiser.
IT professionals should enjoy a similar situation, with room for promotion being even greater. IT is a field where a lot of supervision is necessary, due to it being something of a utility and infrastructure. IT professionals are also known to be some of the more adaptable developers due to how quickly technology in this field evolves.
When it comes to consultants or freelance programmers, that’s really hard to say. Being self-employed as a freelancer is a real gamble no matter how you slice it. It’s possible to land many great and high-paying projects, allowing them to save up a nice nest egg for their later years. It’s just as easy, though, to have to live somewhat hand-to-mouth in this environment. Skill, experience and a solid resume/portfolio don’t guarantee either outcome either.
So, programmers under a company’s umbrella, who’re truly good at what they do can afford to retire, and this is likely to happen around the age of 55-60.
It’s worth noting that computers are still a new technology in their modern form, and since they’ve often attracted younger generations from the start, many of the “old guard” aren’t honestly that old even now. This means we really haven’t seen the first big waves of software developers retiring quite yet.
Do Older Developers Lose Their Energy?
This is also not something with a single definitive answer. But, there are enough precedents at this point to say that yes, this does happen sometimes. A lot of developers enter the field with a passion for something somewhat specific. As their field evolves drastically or becomes obsolete, many can find themselves losing the drive they once had.
These are the developers that move on to other occupations that now capture their interest. The type of mind best suited to software development could feel right at home in finance, marketing, business or any number of other logic-driven disciplines.
There have also been famous cases of hard-working software engineers simply becoming burned out, but not losing their passion for the subject itself. These are the former developers who write technology columns for magazines, newspapers or online journalism websites these days.
Is Ageism a Thing in Software Development?
Yes. This is very much a problem, though it isn’t industry-wide. One programmer recently recounted his tales of moving across the country to Seattle, wishing to gain employ with one of the various big technology houses. Despite their impressive pedigree, their being over the age of 35 made it nigh-impossible to get a foot in the door.
It may not be a conscious effort on the part of companies to discriminate in this manner, but it still happens either way.
This isn’t something older software engineers need always fear though, as older companies like IBM still have a lot of respect for experience and a lifetime of accumulating qualifications and intuition. Unfortunately, as time goes on, this ageism seems to be spreading, which is another factor that’s driven a lot of older programmers to pursue freelance work despite the risks involved.
The Mystery Solved
The truth is that most older programmers simply aren’t chosen as the visible “faces” of their departments, and that’s often fine with them. They’re often busy in more responsibility-heavy positions they’ve earned or focusing on the job they love so very much. Skilled programmers needn’t fear an inability to retire if their company treats them how they should, or they are rightfully wise with their finances.