Ageism in the Tech Industry & Other Bias. Let’s Fight ‘Em All

By Selena Templeton

In the tech industry, there are a lot of -isms, like sexism, racism, ageism, not to mention homophobia and neurodiverse…. Well, let’s just stick to ageism for right now.

It’s no secret that age discrimination exists in the workplace in pretty much every industry (not to mention Western society as a whole), but it seems to be especially rampant in the tech industry. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg infamously said, "I want to stress the importance of being young and technical… Young people are just smarter."

And HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan declared, in an interview with The New York Times, that he was “trying to build a culture specifically to attract and retain Gen Y’ers…[because] in the tech world, gray hair and experience are really overrated.”

A Business Insider chart shows the average age at 17 tech companies and, as you can see, the younger the company, the younger the median age:

  Image Source:  Business Insider

Image Source: Business Insider

To put this in context, according to the U.S. labor force, the average age of workers across all industries is 42.4.

When it comes to the tech/InfoSec/cybersecurity industries, how important is age? Should the number of times you’ve gone around the sun be irrelevant or should you hide or lie about your birthdate in order to get a job? Does being under 30 and having grown up with technology make you better qualified for a tech job or can you learn this stuff even if you grew up with payphones and typewriters?

Let’s take a look at both perspectives.

 

Age Is Only as Relevant as You Make It

Hank Blank writes, “In the New Normal your digital presence defines if you have game and relevance because that is how you will be found first…. Your identity today is your online game...and if you know technology then you will be valuable no matter your age."

The reasoning here is that if you feel you are being turned down for a job, or let go from one, simply because of your age, perhaps you should honestly examine your qualifications. A tech company must always be forward thinking, and that means its employees have to constantly upgrade their skills and be savvy as to what’s going on in technology.

Your resume might have opened dozens of doors for you in 1998, but what are you doing today to keep you relevant? Are you regularly updating your skills and learning new ones? Do you write a cutting-edge tech blog? Are your social media pages one of the go-to spots for up-to-date info on what’s going on in your field (and are you even on social media?)? Are you an active part of the tech community, such as contributing to open-source projects or hosting Facebook Live seminars? Do people consider you an expert at what you do?

Blank reminds us that “Technology is changing every industry and if you know technology then you will be valuable no matter your age. If you know how to do things that other people don’t in the room you will be valuable.”

Because so much of what we do today takes place on the Internet, “your identity today is your online game.” In other words, if you excel at what you do, your age is only as relevant as you make it.

 

Age Is Indeed Relevant in the Tech Industry

On the other hand, are Zuckerberg and Halligan on to something? Is there something about the Millennial generation that is precisely suited for work in the tech industry?

Maybe the over-thirties can still find a place in the IT department of any company, but the leading-edge businesses in tech, InfoSec and cybersecurity actually do require under-thirties who have lived, breathed and eaten technology from childhood. After all, people who learn a language in infancy are generally more fluent than those who learn it later in life.

This story about the 53-year-old BuzzFeed employee who publicly stated that was afraid of technology, would never learn how to make a GIF, and didn’t start using a computer for work until he was 40 got some traction when he was fired soon after he published it. I thought his piece “What It’s Like Being The Oldest BuzzFeed Employee” was a joke until I read his follow-up in which he claims he was not kidding. I’m not saying he’s representative of his age group, but many Millennials undoubtedly do.

Patty McCord, a startup consultant, believes that the reason new startups hire so many young people is because “Startups are companies that … try and fail and iterate, so experience doesn’t necessarily help … It attracts the kind of people who can pound away hour after hour, day after day. They’re [sic] problems more conducive to young people who aren’t constrained by the eight-hour day.”

So if you’re 40 or 50 years old and want to stay competitive, should you dye your hair, grow a lumberjack beard, and text only in acronyms—and hope to god that you don’t accidentally mention attending a Beatles concert?

 

Age Discrimination Rarely Stands Alone

The problem is, “age bias goes hand-in-hand with other forms of bias.” If a company discriminates against older people, it’s fair to suggest that they probably have the tendency to discriminate against women or African-Americans or the disabled. When you are biased towards or prejudiced against a particular group of people, you are essentially closing yourself off to the best solution possible because diverse group of people will bring ideas, experience and answers (and questions) to the table that their seatmate—female, Asian, senior, autistic—might never have thought of.

Bias is based on subjective beliefs rather than objective evidence. Some of the reasons that companies shy away from hiring older workers is debunked in this study from Dropbox and Ipsos Mori, who found that:

  • People over 55 years of age regularly use 4.9 types of technology every week. The average of all ages is 4.7 types of tech per week.

  • 25% of workers over 55 reported that using technology in the workplace was stressful, while 36% of workers between 18 and 34 reported the same.

  • 13% of 55-year-olds said they had difficulty working with multiple devices on the job, yet 37% of 18 to 34-year-olds said they had trouble working with multiple devices.

If it were true that people under 30 years old actually were smarter, learned faster, and were always able to provide the solution than their older counterparts, that would be one thing. But the problem is, it’s not.

The main reason I can see why they would hire a recent college grad over someone with two decades’ experience at multiple companies is that the college grads are cheaper and don’t have the inconvenience of a life. Both Facebook and Apple offered to freeze their female employees’ eggs in order to put off parenthood until they were deemed too old for a job in tech.

The reason why I think people like Zuckerberg and Halligan are wrong is that they are not taking into account what age brings to the table. Beyond just technical skills, which can be learned, it's the vastness of experience in tech (from its infancy), the work environment in general, and life-slash-perspective. Millennials have difficulty understanding the value of life experience because you have to live it to get it. It's like when an 8-year-old says, "I've been waiting my whole life for this" it means something much different than when an 80-year-old says she's been waiting her while life for something.

Or, as one reader so succinctly wrote in a tweet:

...offer to freeze eggs? We live in a crazy world. Maybe Techno smart but life experience dumb!

About Selena Templeton

Selena Templeton is the Column Editor for the Equal Respect column on ITSPmagazine.

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