Over the Hill in IT: Why Ageism in Tech is Getting Old

While it’s illegal to make hiring, and firing decisions based on age, age discrimination is rampant in the tech industry. Proving explicit discrimination may be difficult, but many of the movers and shakers in the technological world make no bones about it; they openly admit to hiring people under 30 years of age. Worse yet, there doesn’t seem to be much of a public outcry against this practice.
In fact, no one batted an eye when 22-year-old Mark Zuckerberg told a Stanford audience: “I want to stress the importance of being young and technical. Young people are just smarter.” Amazingly, there was no backlash for Zuckerberg, and it wasn’t because the media looked the other way; his speech garnered massive amounts of media play. Unfortunately, ageism in the tech industry is old news.

Risk-taking, Rapid Decisions, & Adaptation Valued by Tech Companies

Perception may be part of the problem when it comes to hiring senior professionals. Perceived as being slower to catch on when it comes to newer technological developments, hiring professionals pass over older applicants in favor of younger ones. Managers and supervisors, loathe to take on the onerous burden of getting a new hire that may not be adept at handling cutting-edge developments up to speed; they can just as easily hire a fresh-faced graduate.
The technology industry is a dynamic entity. Tech that’s in now may be nothing more than a useless relic in less than six months. Success in tech depends on taking risks, rapid decision-making, and the ability to anticipate and keep up with new developments. From an evolutionary standpoint, the tendency towards risk-taking behavior peaks in our youth and drops off precipitously sometime after age 27. In a business environment bombarded with radical change, continual innovation, and rapid iteration, it’s easy to see why slow and steady isn’t what it takes to win the race.
Of course, employers fail to consider that the ability to take risks isn’t limited solely to younger workers. Older workers have more experience in taking risks. Imbued with the ability to engage in lateral thinking, mature individuals can make connections between concepts that may at first glance seem unrelated. Seasoned professionals also benefit from more accurate  and logical reasoning gleaned from years of experience in the field. Furthermore, the emotional control humans gain with age enhances core business skills like focus, persistence, and resilience.

Younger Workers More Likely to Work Longer Hours for Less Pay

Families and responsibilities outside of work can be a liability in an industry where 60-hour workweeks are the norm rather than the exception. While a workforce capable of devoting 100 percent of their time and energy to achieving company objectives is tempting to tech leadership, these lofty expectations leave older workers caring for children or aging parents out in the cold.
However, the primary reason why tech firms eschew older workers may have less to do with all the above and more to do with the bottom line. Willing to work long hours for less pay, younger workers are more attractive than their older counterparts who often command higher salaries and increasing levels of benefits. Since payroll is the largest expense for most companies, it certainly sheds light on the tendency many tech companies have of laying off older workers.
The trade-off for this is that while younger workers are cheaper than professionals with years of experience, they require more hand-holding and make more mistakes. The costs associated with these factors may not always be clear-cut, which might explain why hiring managers and leadership within organizations aren’t second-guessing their decisions on favoring new hires over seasoned workers.

Age Bias Largely Ignored by Tech Giants and the Public

Although the Age and Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 makes it illegal to discriminate against older workers, this law has no teeth when it comes to hiring and firing in the tech industry. Hiring managers and employers dismiss older workers almost with impunity. Reports of workers blatantly referred to as “sluggish“ and  “obsolete” by their supervisors continue to escalate according to employment advocates. One unfortunate 50-year old endured chastising for not being “relevant” by his twenty-something supervisor.
Although, Twitter, Google, and Facebook have all faced lawsuits related to their egregious discrimination against older workers, this has done little to dissuade them from continuing these practices. The millions of dollars in settlements paid out are just a drop in the bucket when compared to the sheer enormity of the revenue pulled in by these organizations.
Unfortunately, for those over 40, ideas about diversity are more inclusive towards combatting racism and sexism; ageism is taking a back seat to the more visible issues. Age bias just isn’t getting the same push-back from the public that one sees with other problems.
Despite efforts to appear more diverse, young white men remain the most visible demographic in Silicon Valley. The median age for most tech firms still hovers just below 30, with little variation above that, leaving some to insinuate that Silicon Valley is a “white man’s paradise”.
Ageism, like other forms of discrimination, continues to persist because the assumptions about older workers go unchecked. Very few people are willing to challenge the status quo. Until enough people are willing to stand up against ageism, there will be no sweeping reforms.

Us Government and Startups Cooperating to Combat Ageism in Tech

To be fair, there are initiatives in process to address ageism and other forms of discrimination endemic in the tech industry. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is working on some measures to help close the talent gap. There is an entire field of startups forming to create innovative solutions designed to encourage diversity and inclusion. Dozens of companies are jumping on board the diversity bandwagon to eliminate bias in hiring and seek out diverse talent pools.
Displaced older workers also have the power to boost their chances of getting hired by employing a few tried and true practices to get their foot in the door when it comes to getting hired. Including only recent relevant work history and not listing graduation dates on resumes are strategies commonly recommended by employment experts. Updating certification and training and using younger-looking pictures of oneself on social media profiles may also prove to be beneficial to older job seekers.

When it comes to addressing ageism in tech-related fields, it would be beneficial to all, if key players reevaluated their positions on hiring and retaining experienced older employees. The crux of the matter is that diversity is necessary for innovation and stability. As the movers and shakers in tech start approaching middle age and retirement, it will be interesting to see if they continue to stand by the assumption that “in the tech world, gray hair and experience are really overrated”.

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