In response to a Freedom of Information Act, the United Kingdom amateur radio license regulator, Ofcom, has released counts of ham licenses by age group (see here). The ICQ Podcast covered this story in this week’s episode. They are simple counts but I’ve taken them and added UK population data for comparison. Using a graph from my recent NCJ article on aging in American radiosport, I also make general comparisons to the US ham population. How does the UK compare to the US in terms of the age distribution relative to the overall population? Are hams becoming more elderly? Is there an influx of younger people into amateur radio in these two countries? The results are concerning to anyone interested in the long term viability of amateur radio in either country.
The bar chart shows the three UK license classes—Foundation, Intermediate, and Full—with the corresponding total UK population by age group. These categories are what the Ofcom report contains so I was unable to reconfigure it for other groupings. The purple total population bar in comparison to any of the ham licenses illustrates the “aging” of the British ham population. This is especially the cast for Full licenses. As the age group enters mid-life (post-50), the imbalance becomes clear and gets more imbalanced as age increases.
The second bar chart is from my NCJ article on US hams. The ARRL membership data are proxies for the US FCC ULS license database. (The FCC stopped collecting birth year some decade or so ago.) The tan bar is the total population from the Census Bureau. The green bar is from an ARRL survey of current and previous NCJ subscribers and are a proxy for contest participants.
Clearly, the US amateur radio population compares favorably with those in the UK as represented in the Ofcom data release. There may be a slightly more aging pattern in the US data. It’s the post-60 year old category where the ham population surpasses the comparable share of the total population. As noted in my NCJ article, the contesting data show that this group is even more elderly than hams in general.
Ofcom is an evidence-based regulator, so market research is important to us. Many of our decisions are informed by research evidence, and our market research ensures that we have a thorough, robust and up-to-date understanding of consumers in the UK.Source: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/research-and-data/about-ofcoms-research
These data released by Ofcom show a revealing, but not entirely surprising, picture of the amateur population in the United Kingdom. Most would agree that they “see” hams at rallys and elsewhere and most “look older” than “younger.” In these data, there are younger hams in the data but they are indeed smaller in number and share. But until we have actual data on all licensed hams (and even the Ofcom release warns about their under-coverage), it’s like building the proverbial dinosaur from some bones discovered in an archaeological dig from one site. We also do not know about how many “late-in-life” hams will emerge during their mid to later years (see here for survey estimates). By inference, the hypothesis that amateur radio is a cultural phenomenon mostly engaged in members of the the Western “Baby Boom” (see here) is not inconsistent with these data. Until we have data where longitudinal and age-cohort variables are measured will we even begin to be able to move beyond the ubiquitous: “well, the blokes at the rally…” or “in my club, I’m the youngest and I’m 50 years old”. Those comments may indeed be characteristics of the full ham population, but we simply do not know this for sure or with any precision.
Even though Ofcom says it’s an evidence-based regulator, until more data like this is released and analyzed, we won’t be able to really get a handle on social change in the hobby and public serve of ham radio. Age and cohort comparisons (e.g., Glenn, Cohort Analysis) are the standard to measure change like this. In the US, the FCC isn’t even in the ball game. Sad.