Ageism in the Tech Industry – Part I

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

A troubling paradox exists in U.S. high-tech: there’s a shortage of engineers, but tens of thousands of unemployed ones. While companies bemoan the scarcity of qualified talent, experienced engineers struggle to understand why no one will hire them.  Many believe it’s because employers consider ‘qualified’ to exclude candidates they consider too old, and there’s a wealth of anecdotal evidence supporting that view. How does an industry that righteously champions diversity look the other way when it comes to its own age bias? And what can older tech workers do to keep their careers from tanking as they age?

Silicon Valley’s upstart ethos has long extoled doe-eyed coders who happily work 80+ hours a week, pull all-nighters, and forego market wages for the dubious prospect of an IPO windfall. And what happens in Silicon Valley doesn’t stay in Silicon Valley. Just as its name has become a metonym for the American high-tech sector, its trends are often adopted as canons of the industry at large – and youth worship is no exception. This is at odds with the field’s egalitarian values. Computer engineering is a fraternity bound by the belief that anyone smart and hard-working can not only ‘make it’ but change the world. The trouble is, neophyte programmers and entrepreneurs are so lionized that ‘anyone’ has come to mean ‘anyone born this side of 1980.’

Median age in tech lower than average

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average age of American workers is 42.3. A recent survey conducted by compensation research firm PayScale found that the median age of tech company employees is as much as sixteen years younger.  Epic Games has the lowest median age: 26. Facebook and Zynga employees have a median age of 28, Google 29, and AOL, Blizzard Entertainment, InfoSys, and all 30.

Problems for the over-thirties?

Illegal but difficult to prove

Does younger mean smarter?

Diversity doesn’t appear to mean diversity in age

What older workers can do

This story is part of our special focus on human resource management. All the articles related to this topic can be found here.

Depending on who you talk to, these numbers either prove age-discrimination is rife in IT, or confirm the intellectual, creative, and entrepreneurial superiority of the 20-somethings. Either way, if you’re a techie and were born before the first test-tube baby, there’s cause to worry that your career has an expiration date, fast approaching.

If you think ageism isn’t an issue that affects you, think again. It’s common to hear age-discrimination complaints from people who don’t fit any typical (or sane) definition of old: in some niches, like gaming and social media, workers in their mid-thirties are considered ‘aging.’ One San Francisco programmer told me engineers are “over” if they reach their 30th birthday and still code. “If by then you haven’t moved up – move out,” said the Airbnb employee who asked not to be identified.

Climb the ladder or face unemployment

His view is extreme, but not off the mark: computer engineering is an “up or out” profession: climb the ladder or face unemployment. It’s a tacit truth – leaders don’t talk about it for fear of being sued, but everyone knows this is the way things are. The way tech companies see it, why hire an experienced engineer for $150,000 when you get a new grad for less than half that? Even if the newbie requires months of training, they still come out ahead.

Next page: Illegal but difficult to prove

Age discrimination is of course illegal, but it’s very difficult to prove. There’s almost never a ‘smoking gun,’ like emails dismissing a job candidate as too old, or an official policy that pushes people out due to age. Lawyers must rely on more ambiguous evidence, such as statistical analyses of companies’ hiring decisions, to suggest age is a factor in staffing.

While very few cases are brought to suit, and even fewer are proved, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that age discrimination in IT is very real. Last November, Reuters reported the story of 60-year-old Randy Adams, an MIT-educated engineer and entrepreneur who has founded eight venture-backed technology companies and is credited with provisioning the original funding for Yahoo! and managing the original team that created PDF and Acrobat at Adobe Systems. Adams was looking for a CEO gig back in 2011, but kept losing out to younger applicants. Suspecting his qualifications weren’t the problem, he prepped for his next interview, with a mobile communications start-up, by shaving his head and exchanging his leather loafers for a pair of Chuck Taylors. He got an offer. “I don’t think I would have been able to get this CEO job if I hadn’t shaved my head,” Adams said.

Youth-obsessed culture: bad news for the older generation

Negative assumptions about ‘the older’ are second-nature in our youth-obsessed culture, and then continually reinforced by advertising that taps into our collective phobia of growing old to peddle everything from dish soap to iPhones. Tech is no exception, presenting itself as synonymous with the enthusiasm, potential, and exclusivity of youth. People are buying it – having the latest iPhone and being the first of your friends to know about ‘Technology Trend X’ is better than Botox for staving off the appearance of aging.

Next page: Does younger mean smarter?

In 2007, Facebook co- founder Mark Zuckerberg famously told attendees at a venture capital conference that successful start-ups are no-old-people zones. “Young people are just smarter,” he said. In reality, there is little evidence to support the idea that young people are more likely to thrive as entrepreneurs, nor is there much to substantiate that younger = smarter.

Research psychologist K. Warner Schaie’s Seattle Longitudinal Study, regarded as the most definitive longitudinal research on intellectual maturation, found evidence suggesting that people are actually in their intellectual prime later in life than previously believed. The study measured both fluid intelligence (native information – processing ability) and crystallized intelligence (aptitude dependent on acquired knowledge and experience). While the two types track a bit differently, the study found that, overall, intelligence peaks in mid-life, between the ages of 35 and 60.

Ageism hard to establish

Because an individual’s suitability for a particular role is entirely subjective, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish illegal age discrimination (an action based solely on age) from a legitimate preference to hire people with positive traits and favorable circumstances typical of younger workers. For example, pay is generally commensurate with experience, and experience is commensurate with age, so younger workers cost less. Twenty-somethings are less likely than older employees to have weighty responsibilities outside the workplace – like children or aging parents to care for – that limit their availability to work long and or irregular hours, travel, relocate, and drop everything at crunch-time. And “Birds of a Feather … “ is a cliché for good reason: people naturally gravitate toward others like them.  Increasingly, senior staff and decision-makers are young themselves, so it’s no surprise (or crime) that they prefer to work among people with whom they share something fundamental, like age.

Next page:  Diversity doesn’t appear to mean diversity in age

Whether or not you agree there’s advantages to employing cheap, unfettered techies that share your experiences (or that younger workers even have these attributes), cost, flexibility, and cultural fit are all justifiable, legal factors to consider in hiring decisions.

Keeping your job long-term is a luxury

Ideally, there would be no false assumptions made about workers ‘of a certain age,’ and older workers wouldn’t resent or fear being supplanted by the new-blood, who they perceive as favored by a misguided modus operandi. A workforce comprised of workers spanning a broad spectrum of experience and age would be recognized as highly-effective. Younger employees wouldn’t be hired at the expense of older more experienced ones, or vice versa. Colleagues of different ages and stages would complement each other.

But it’s not a perfect world: tech companies say they want diversity in their workforce, but they don’t mean diversity in age. Seasoned tech workers face very real challenges: keeping your job long-term is a luxury, being paid what you’re worth as your experience grows – a miracle. If you want or need new employment in the industry – the older you are, the longer it will take and the more difficult it will be to secure it. It’s not fair, and it’s not just. It is, however, the way things are.

Next page:  What older workers can do

What can older workers do?

On the upside, there are things older workers can do to stay relevant and in-demand. asked a variety of industry ‘insiders’ to share their advice – among  them  in-house and agency recruiters, hiring managers, lead engineers, a C-level start-up executive that just turned 30, and a two engineers over 40 whose stars rise still.

You can see their collective advice in part two of this article, which will be published next week.