Ageism in Tech: Too Old to Code?
— June 14th, 2023
A couple of years ago a job listing boldly exclaiming "We hire old people" went viral and threw a spotlight on hiring practices across the Tech industry.
It reads: "Unlike Silicon Valley, we do not discriminate based on age. Experience matters. We hire old people. (And young people, too.)"
So what exactly is considered old? A 2021 study by the University of Gothenburg found that anyone over the age of 35 is considered old by industry standards. In most other sectors, 35 is just about when people are hitting their stride. To put that into context, the median age of an American worker is 42; at Meta (formerly Facebook) it’s around 28.
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The study showed that older employees are perceived to be less up-to-date with technological trends, and have more difficulty processing information or picking up new things. In many sectors older workers are deemed to have "too much experience" as code for "too old and expensive", in Tech it’s often the reverse.
These things matter. Perceptions not only impact how people are treated within an organization but also their success rate in landing jobs in the first place. Job applicants in their 40s and 50s are routinely shaving years off their CVs or LinkedIn profiles—in a bid to appear to improve their marketability.
There are countless reports of experienced workers being laid off and replaced by younger peers, or being unemployed for painfully long periods of time.
The current Tech cull is seeing its fair share. Some find it impossible to land a job past a certain age, and move industries, taking decades’ worth of valuable expertise with them. Others leave the workforce altogether.
While companies openly tackle racial or gender diversity, ageism is often a neglected topic. So ethical considerations aside, why does it matter?
- By 2030 the Tech labor-skill shortage is forecast to reach 4.3 million – with an unrealized global output of close to $450 billion. The UK alone will fail to realize almost 9% of potential revenue because of it. That's hardly chicken fodder. Older, re-trained workers, women—and people from different ethnic backgrounds—will all need to be part of Tech’s future.
- Diversity is a key driver of innovation. Companies with above-average diversity produce a greater proportion of revenue from innovation. More inclusive business cultures and policies translate into a 60% boost. This uplift in turn drives better ﬁnancial performance.
- And, as technical products and services become more commonplace, so do older users. If the aim is to offer them to as many people as possible, in order to generate higher profits—then people of all ages need to be included in the design of those products and services.
People from different generations have a lot to offer each other. They will have different world views, ways of working, core values, and experience—all of which make for a more diverse workplace, which in turn drives innovation and profitability. That means dusting off some myths about older workers and creating opportunities.
Even common assumptions about start-ups don’t hold water. While we glorify the concept of the young founder conceiving a brilliant idea in their mum’s basement and dropping out of college to pursue his dreams, the reality is a bit different.
The most successful founders clock in at 40+ years old. The average age of the top 0.1% of start-tups in terms of growth is actually 45 years old. And a 50-year-old founder is 1.8 times more likely to achieve upper-tail growth than a 30-year-old.
And when viewing age in the context of other characteristics, if you’ve not benefited from the same access to opportunities earlier on in your career you might take longer to rise up the ranks.
So while all older workers face the prospect of age discrimination, if you’ve faced barriers because of race or gender your career trajectory is likely to take even longer.
We know, for instance, that the gender pay gap is skewed against older women. While everyone gets paid less as they get older, the gap for women is even more marked. Age and gender: a double whammy.
That intersection matters. A report from the non-profit Black Women in Leadership Network found that a staggering 84% of Black women in senior positions reported racial bias at work. It’s not enough to look at one single characteristic. A truer picture is how factors like gender, race or socio-economic background, and age, play out together.
If you’re thinking the solution is flying solo, the truth is that funding is a big blocker. Women-led start-ups, and especially those founded by Black women, are dramatically underfunded. So right now, only a very select few are managing to get the financial backing they need.
Dig a little deeper, with a DE&I lens on the current over 50s "exodus’" and I believe the focus should be less on luring early retirees back into work, but rather on employers offering:
a) Meaningful opportunities to a diverse workforce in rapid-growth sectors such as Tech
b) Putting protective, and progressive, measures in place for employees
c) Funding the full gamut of start-ups
In other words, the onus should be on employers to attract the talent, and for VC to fund Britain’s entrepreneurs, many of whom have been passed over or made redundant by a sector heavily skewed towards youth.
Set the right framework, and that will be the key to unlocking the "great return to work" for the over 50s. But that means shaping a culture that will enable it. Long hours, lack of flexibility, and a ruthless work ethic, combined with a lack of diversity and sluggish progression won’t incentivize people.
The bottom line is this: If we want our older workers back in the mix we are going to have to re-think the environment we provide for them. One thing’s for sure, DE&I certainly doesn’t have a hard-stop past the golden age of 35.
So here are some tips for attracting talent of all ages:
— Increase your reach: four in five of those over 50 say they have not been contacted by a recruiter in the past 12 months.
— Studies show that recruiters in their 20s are significantly less likely not to screen the CVs of older applicants. Ensure candidates are not locked out due to age (or any other characteristic).
— Strive to eliminate bias when hiring, by using age-neutral imagery and language in job descriptions or on social media.
— Don’t assume that people are not up to date on trends, will be too expensive, not committed, etc. If in doubt, ask directly (within the confines of legislation).
— One structured interview is a good way to level the playing field, but don’t ask for strategy presentations in the first round. Interviews should not be used as a means of harnessing the skill and experience of older workers for free.
— Offer flexible working arrangements (remote, part-time, job shares, etc). Studies show that almost 60% of workers want to work beyond retirement age, but less than one in three have the option to move from full- to part-time work.
— Upskill and re-train. Many people are eager to learn new skills and continue to grow. And because of the labor skills shortage, Tech will need older workers, and it will need to re-train workers (of all ages) to bolster its workforce.
— Create a welcoming culture for all ages. Broaden your opportunities to learn and collaborate with colleagues, by including them in meetings. And outside of work, find things to do that everyone can enjoy. Try not to always stick to your own age group.
— Finally, be at the forefront of change, as opposed to being on the backfoot. Be a champion of the over-50s by advocating across your industry. And of course, last but not least, factor in age as part of your DE&I strategy.
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