When is too Old


If you haven’t heard it personally you will know someone how has:

I’m getting too old for this, but I hope I can finish this one last project/design before I’m forced out.

This is often from an extremely experienced coder/designer over 40. It’s an old problem. It goes back to the 1970’s even. But still today it’s present even in the web industry. But why? Are we valuing the perceived spirit of creativity, youth and cheap labour over experience too much?

A while back I read (on dead tree material, sorry can’t remember the book) a quote from some of the old time programmers (circa 1970’s 1980’s) about the professional life expectancy of a programmer. The discussion was along the lines; that due to various management policies not valuing skills over salary cost the life expectancy of a programmer was expected to be about 10-12 years.

After graduating a Programmer will raise through the ranks to the position of Analysis Programmer after a few projects, then onto Senior Analysis, and finally at about 35 they are retired out of programming full time into the ranks of Project Manager or maybe if they are lucky and have talent they get to become a Business Analyst. If they are talent less they end up as a generalist IT Manager or are forced out of the industry altogether. The lucky ones become hired guns and go consulting, but even this has a limited life span in which you can have your fun. Sean McCown discusses this in detail and the implications, so I’m not going into it here.

I know this is old school, maybe I’m showing my age (damnit I’m not that old). But let’s consider this in an updated scenario.

Graduate Programmer after a while becomes a Senior Developer; they may become Project Lead, or Project Manager. Again by the time they are 35 years they are expect to be out of coding and starting down a management role where they can stagnant till they retire. It’s a little sad really. The business experience, the people liaison skills, and the general systems architecture skills are all lost or not valued.

That’s the coder done, what of the other side of the coin the designer. Well they are thrown away at a faster rate, on average a designer (I’m told) is swashed up at 25. And it’s very rare to find a designer working (besides freelance or as the boss) in a creative front line position beyond 30. Sure they get assigned as creative lead and later as CDs but they are considered really just directors (in the film sense) of the projects and not the talent that is on a ground doing it all. So for 3 years study we have effective hands on career of 4-9yrs that’s disgusting; it’s not a physical industry like the dance industry. Consider the great artists did their Masterpieces into middle age, what the hell we are doing, killing of the creative spirit just when it’s starting to flow.

I’m excluding small firms, consultants and micro business from this mix. As they often have complete different often non standard staffing requirements and are more to do with the personality of the directors than the any professional career path.

But let’s consider them in detail anyway. Are smaller web firms much different? Okay some are, some are not. A lot of web firms will favour younger staff over older ones as they basically are cheaper and work long hours and don’t have any of those annoying hang-ups like families / partners or any major social life, you know the social commitments. And if they do the pressure is usually on to commit to the firm 110% and basically live at the office. I’ll have some advice on this all “work no play” attitude in a later post.

The question is why we ship our staff off to the management retirement farm or out of the industry with burnout at 30-40. As I don’t fit this mold I have often wondered about this.

But the other day someone mentioned they gave up coding at 40 because they could no longer develop as fast as the young guns and they couldn’t keep the big picture of the overall code structure and modularity of how it all came together in their head anymore.

Then a friend from way back, who is a designer, tells me she is giving up after 10 years of brilliant work. She says she can’t get the drive, the muse, the emotion into her designs; she’s just burnt out. Even after an extended time away from the industry she’s drained and can’t come up with the “exciting new designs” within the tight time frames.

This made me think. Is this just an excuse? Or is it that they are under pressure to forgo family and trappings of settling down (like a mortgage), like their younger co-workers. Is it the extremely smaller timeframe we are putting the creatives under?

If it’s not the above employer pressure then is the statement true.

Do you suddenly turn 40 and you loose the ability to think logically and on a complex level, or find/discover that next design.

Coders say it get harder to have relearn a new syntax for the language / framework flavour of the year (note Ruby this year), but I think its gets easier. Then you tend from a design view to internally push yourself to create something radically new, which you know is not really possible, but then you do get technically quicker at the design process once you have the design picture in your head.

Maybe what happens is you start to loose focus on the detail and start to see the bigger picture as you start to apply the breath of your maturing knowledge base. Yeah right 😉

But then again I know some gun coders/designers at 40-45, so maybe its just personality and lifestyle change that comes with family, 2.345 kids and social commitment. You mellow and you just don’t have that drive anymore. Does the late nights and focus on work alone of youth equate to creative drive?

If it is general social commitment that slows use down then what can we do about it? Besides the family friendly workplace (that’s another post too).

We all know the web industry has an extremely rapid cycle of knowledge turn over. This results in a massive self-education requirement every year. This has been rated from 40 to 100 hours a year (not much really only 2 hours a week), personally I would see it as more like 150 to 200 hours a year. Anyway the figure is high, higher than your accountant, your network engineer, your desktop programmer, it’s up there with doctors and lawyers.

As previously discussed the industry doesn’t in general seem to be able to keep up with the best practice standards than we are often touting. So if we can’t stay up to date, is the web industry breeding a group of people that are all destined to burn out or become redundant very quickly? Is the web industry become a product of our throw away society, but now we are throwing away developers and designers.

Do we need to foster and encourage our fellow designers and developers to get back that self-starter mentality that they had when they where young. And take up the burden of self-education again. Or do we just let them stagnate and slip into the roles that keep the admin johnnies of the world happy.

Should we all just shut up shop and stop coding / designing after we reach the age of 40 and go operate lawn mover rounds, as we are all past it and we are just kidding ourselves that we are not?

Remember that old not so hip guy at the end of the bar trying to be forever young, that will be you someday. Think about it.

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  1. I’m over 35 and I think I’m doing my best thinking now, much better than when I was younger.

    I work for architects and it’s exactly the opposite there, where it seems the older the architect the more respect they gain.

    There is something to be said for experience.

    I think people too readily believe what others tell them. Especially their superiors in a company.

    If the Internet has taught me anything it’s that everyone has an equal chance to find a rewarding life no matter their age or anything else.

  2. Being well over 35, I believe that I have only just achieved my really best works to date in resent years.

    And yes the traditional professions will tend to treat professionals they consider as equals with the same value systems as themselves. It’s in the professions where this does not occur that there can be a problem, which is tending to be a norm sadly.

  3. I hit 27 this year and I’m only just getting started. I can’t ever imagine myself working outside of a creative environment. I need to be hands-on.

    Oh, and I’m looking forward to being the not-so-hip guy at the end of the bar trying to be young forever! 😉

  4. Hey, good article. I recently rocked up to a web function in Perth where the average age was 22. Even I felt old and I’m not even 30 yet [gulp: one year to go].

    Actually, I was a bit annoyed that there were no familiar faces. I remember there were swarms of students in my classes at Tafe and Uni. Now I’m battling to name more than 3 fellow classmates who are still in the industry.

    Hmm… Perhaps, it depends on the work environment we’re in?

    I’ve spent the last 5yrs working for the same company who, I have to say, don’t really endorse creativity or high standards (or care about their staff). This has made me a tad apathetic and burnt out. Which is why I’m ready to change jobs. Maybe I can start mowing lawns?!

    Or, maybe it comes down to attitude?

    If you believe you can do something (ie. Have a lot of self-confidence / big ego) and put the time and effort into learning and improving your skills, then you might have a chance at staying put in your industry.

    Maybe the tricky part is finding the right motivation? (eg. Money vs Job Satisfaction) Geez… It’d be nice to have either one.

  5. Thanks Justine

    I know what its like, I have attended web industry events and felt sometimes like I should have checked my zimmer frame at the door.

    I have been where you are, it’s all about self motivation. No one else is going to help you its all up to you. The fact that you’re attending web industry events is a good thing.

    Then its just a matter of being ballsy and talking to people, especially the older ones (like me).

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