Ageism in Tech
Why it happens, and how to fight it
In the USA network series Mr. Robot, main character Elliott is the best hacker in the world: He can access any system he chooses with his black hat skills. But in season 3 he makes a rare misstep. After sneaking into a room of security specialists at the evil megacorporation E Corp, he starts profiling the employees based on appearances and decides to prey on a gray-haired woman who he assumes is a weak link. A bad move: It turns out she’s a security ace who doesn’t fall for his tricks.
Unfortunately, Elliott isn’t the only person in tech who is susceptible to stereotypes and social profiling. To put it bluntly: Tech has an ageism problem. Among tech workers over 45, 61% are concerned that their career options are being limited by their age. And 68% of baby boomers avoid applying for a job they think they’re too old to get. They aren’t imagining things, either: about three-fourths of professional developers are under 35.
What older tech workers are experiencing
Ageism isn’t unique to the tech world—it’s an issue that professionals across industries have to deal with. Yet the average tech worker is five years younger than the average non-tech worker, according to a survey by Visier. That five-year gap was true for managers, too: The average age of tech managers is 42 compared to 47 for non-tech managers. The survey also noted that the tech industry hires a disproportionately higher ratio of workers than non-tech fields up until the age of 48—then the hiring drops off. Salaries, surprisingly, aren’t the issue—older workers earn about the same as their younger peers in the same positions.
But there is a glimmer of good news. While there are fewer older tech workers overall, the workers over 40 who remain tend to be highly valued—a phenomenon that is unique to tech. These non-manager workers have reached what the Visier study describes as the “sage age”: They are more likely to be respected and receive top performance reviews than their peers in other industries. Unfortunately, the “sage age” workers don’t get promoted to reward their excellent contributions; in fact, promotions in tech decrease with age.
While it’s hard to get data on why this is happening, there are a few theories as to what’s going on.
- The misconception that younger employees are naturally more innovative, whereas experienced workers are more likely to fall back on what has worked for them in the past.
- An emphasis on a young, fun-loving office culture that many startups use to catch the eye of both prospective employees and venture capitalists.
- The mistaken belief that older workers won’t have up-to-date skills (such as knowing the latest programming languages).
What hiring managers can do
- If you use recruiters, they may be filtering out older candidates because of unconscious bias. Have a frank talk with them about it; make it clear that you are open to older candidates with the right skills.
- If you use AI-based recruiting tools, they can be programmed to ignore demographic information.
- If you’re hiring software engineers, use blind coding evaluations to judge the work of potential employees. (This is useful to reduce bias across all demographics).
- Encourage mentoring between your team members.
What you can do if ageism is an issue in your career
- Age neutralize your resume by removing the year you graduated from school and date ranges for jobs early in your career. You can even leave everything except your most recent few jobs off your resume to keep it looking fresh.
- Stay on top of the latest trends, programming languages and tools in your field. It’s unfortunate, but you’re going to have to work extra hard to prove you’re just as innovative as your younger coworkers.
- Build relationships and find common ground with other team members. You’ll have better job security if you’re viewed as an essential member of the team.
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