How Old a Ham Are Ya?

Most discussions that we hear about «new» hams tend to center around youth. «Well, I’ve been licensed since before diapers were throw-away," etc. Certainly, the romantic notion of entry into licensed amateur radio operation embraces a young person getting Elmer-ed by an adult who introduces the youngster into the magic of the RF ether. We also hear about how those folk are now graying and fading from the FCC license registration database either by design or default (license expiration). Woe is us if we don’t convince an entire group new youngsters into the fold, right?

Yes, I’d agree, partly. Without going into a full demographic exposition of the Baby Boom and the graying population-by-age curve, it does behoove us to wonder. What happened to those who may have been exposed to amateur radio early (or later) in life but who only availed themselves of actual licensing later in life? Are they just random events that really don’t amount to much (many)? Or are they a largely unrecognized and therefore hidden sector of amateur radio? There is no lack of opinions. Just ask your ham home-boy next time you have a meal together!

One demographic group that we first identified in the 2011 Delta Division Survey were indeed these late-in-life amateurs: those who are at least 50 years of age but only licensed 10 years or less. I discuss the age and license-tenure results in the 2013 Delta Division Survey of ARRL members in this post.

Median Ages of Hams

Using ARRL membership records provided by the League, coupled with the Survey results, I produced the two comparison histograms shown in Figure 2. (Note: I use the same figure numbers as in the full report to reduce confusion.) What statistical histograms do is represent continuous data---like age in years---along a continuum of age along the bottom by how many people report that age in the dataset. The median of the histogram is exactly where 50% of the number in the histogram occurs among the various ages. It is less resistant to very old or young ages (in this case).

The median age of licensed hams who are League members is 63 years. This is almost two years older than the 2011 Survey analysis showed, each time using actual League membership data. Thus, hams in the Delta Division are aging.

But does this mean that «new» licensees (who obtain League membership) are young or old when they become hams? Not necessarily! This is the «license-tenure» variable, the length of time someone has held a license. By combining age and age-at-first-licensure, Figure 3 illustrates the variation in age-at-licensing. The purple, yellow and red bars at any age-level are those hams licensed for a decade or longer. Among the three oldest age categories, of 50s, 60s, and 70+, these bars dominate. This reflects the «early in life» group of hams which dominates our commonly held conception of ourselves collectively. But also take into consideration the blue, green and tan bars in these same age groups.


The number of «newbies» licensed for less than a year (blue bar) consistently increase. The tenure of 1−5 years (green bars) represent significant shares of the three age groups. Not as large as the longer-tenure bars, for sure, but they are too large to simply ignore! The tan bars of 5−10 years tenure simply add to this sector of hams. But we hear little about them in League discussions or with fellow hams.

To help make the original point I explored in the 2011 Survey report, Figure 4 is a composite set of graphs designed to illustrate the «late-in-life» hams in this Division. To my knowledge, there is no publicly available data on other Divisions or anywhere else that parallel these analyses, which is unfortunate. I’ve said elsewhere (ICQPodcast editorial) that the ARRL should replicate this survey nationally and with a randomized design to yield Division-level estimates to accompany those at the national scale.

Late-in-Life Identification

A critical statistic for this blog post is in the upper-right graph, a pie-chart. There are fully one-fifth, or 22%, of all League hams in the Delta Division who are late-in-life hams. This figure is simply too large to ignore. The upper-left graph is a bar chart of the age groups of 50 and over by license tenure of 10 years or less. It illustrates that the operational definition of 50 years of age or less than a decade’s tenure doesn’t change the results very much. So this measurement is fairly robust, demographically speaking.

The lower-left panel graph is a bar chart of late-in-life status by license classification. It shows that this group are not just part of the new wave of Technician-only licensees. They are just as likely to be Generals or Extras. Thus they are fully-integrated into the ham license structure.

The lower-right panel is a reproduction of the single pie-chart by state and rural-to-urban location. While there is variation---AR has slightly fewer while LA and MS have slightly more---this graph further illustrates how widespread this demographic group is in the Division’s Sections and population centers.

To close, this largely unrecognized group of amateurs---those who get licensed late-in-life---are a significant part of the amateur hobby. We hope that the League will alter it’s recruitment and outreach programs to realize that while youth incumbents to the hobby may be falling victim to other technologically oriented hobbies (robotics, computer programming, etc.), there is a clear market for amateur radio that is being ignored: those 50 and over. They are retiring, have increased time on their hands, and are at their peak earning years! All things that amateur radio vendors should take note of, as well as the ARRL: the National Association for Amateur Radio.

Updated: October 16, 2014 — 5:55 pm

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