Youth and experience – ageism in the tech industry

SUMMARY:

The tech industry is perceived as being incredibly ageist. But just how much is perception and how much reality? Cath Everett explores the issues in the first of a series of articles on older workers in tech.

Unlike Eastern cultures, which are well-known for the respect accorded to older members of society, the industrialised nations of the West have found it necessary to introduce legislation to try and stave off ageist practices.

But despite these long-standing anti-discrimination laws, there has been a flurry of reports recently indicating that all is not well in employment terms at least. A survey among just over 1,000 UK workers of all age groups by insurance firm Canada Life Group, for instance, revealed a mere 12% believe older staff – generally defined as aged 55 or older – are appreciated and respected at work, while just under a quarter claim they are actively subjected to stigma and negative stereotypes.

A second study by business management consultancy Lee Hecht Harrison Penna, meanwhile, discovered that one in five workers feel discriminated against in promotion terms, with nearly two out of five attributing this situation to their age.

Interestingly, the research also found that, although sexism is currently the largest diversity-related preoccupation of HR professionals following the introduction of gender pay gap reporting and the like, ageism is actually the most apparent workplace issue.

In a bid to do something about the situation, particularly in the light of an ageing population and ever-increasing skills gaps, Business in the Community (BITC), a UK charity that promotes responsible business, has asked employers to publicly commit to employing one million more older workers by 2022  – and, as a starting point, to hire 12% more over the next five years than is currently the case today. It has also requested that organisations publish the number and percentage of older employees on their books too.

IT consultancy Atos is one of around seven organisations that have signed up to the BITC initiative so far. But just how does the notoriously young tech sector measure up against other industries and is it really as rampantly ageist as it appears at first glance?

Industry age bias

One of the challenges when answering this question is that, on the one hand, the subject is rarely talked about and relatively little research has been done on it to date. On the other, the tech industry is not a single, monolithic entity and companies may employ quite different demographics depending on their nature, that is whether they are established firms such as IBM, younger players such as Facebook or even digital start-ups.

Nonetheless, a study by renumeration information specialist PayScale revealed what most of us instinctively already know – that the majority of workers in this world are young males.

In fact, the median employee age across the 18 large, well-known US tech companies it analysed was 37, compared to a US average of 42. But there was a marked difference between older, more established companies such as:

  • HP – median age: 38; years of experience: 7.7; years with company: 6.3
  • Oracle – median age: 37; years of experience: 9; years with company: 5.3
  • IBM – median age: 36; years of experience: 7.4; years with company: 7.1

and younger ones such as:

  • Facebook – median age: 29; years of experience: 4.3; years with company: 1.1
  • Amazon – median age: 30; years of experience: 5.3; years with company: 2
  • Google – median age: 30; years of experience: 5.2; years with company: 2.

As Gareth Jones, chief innovation officer at HR and business management consultancy The Chemistry Group, points out:

The general narrative in the tech industry is age-biased and the focus is on Millennials. The situation is particularly acute on the coding side of things, and there’s a general acceptance that you don’t need to worry about the fact you’re not employing older people as it’s not a politically sensitive issue in the same way that things like gender are. So while you’ve often got older people at the senior levels, when it comes to the more general business layers or hands-on tech world, the age group tends to be very young.

Unfair stereotypes

Research by online marketplace Hired.com throws further light on this statement. Its 2017 State of Salaries report showed that the most desirable age group for US tech workers was 25 to 30 years in that they received the highest average number of job offers.

After the age of 45, however, this interest started to dwindle. While salaries peaked between the ages of 45 to 50, any older and workers tended to see a significant drop in their ability to draw salaries commensurate with their experience.

For candidates between the age of 50 and 60, the average offer was about $132,000, which is on a par with what is offered to those who are 10 years younger – and presumably have 10 years less experience. According to Kelli Dragovich, senior vice president of people operations at Hired, this situation points to the fact that “age discrimination appears to be rampant in the tech industry” even though making recruitment decisions based on age is illegal. She says:

It appears that, after a certain age, experience becomes less important and a candidate’s likelihood of being hired may be impacted by less tangible factors such as culture fit or experience with new technologies.

Dragovich attributes much of the problem to “unfair and inaccurate stereotypes”, which manifest themselves in everything from middle managers feeling threatened by more experienced candidates to hiring managers who demonstrate unconscious bias against older candidates. She explains:

Organisations are often myopically focused on culture fit, which consequently leads to biases in their interview processes. Given that most start-ups, for example, skew on the young side, this means that many interviewers automatically reject people who are older than them as they don’t believe they’ll be suitable for the organisational culture.

Negative perceptions

Patrick Voss, managing director at Jeito, a consultancy specialising in organisational culture and employee engagement, agrees. He cites a study by US-based Boston College, which explored the negative perceptions that exist around older employees (in general rather than specifically tech industry terms) in a working environment where it is common to have four generations sitting side by side.

It found that the younger the people questioned, the less likely they were to think of workers of 55 or over as holding positive characteristics such as being reliable and productive, adaptable, eager for training and flexible. Voss says:

Older workers taking longer to get to grips with new skills is a stereotype, but in an industry that always feels it needs to innovate and advocate new technology to keep things moving, it’s possibly unsurprising that a younger, more connected workforce is seen as a way to drive that – anecdotally, younger people often seem more interested in the ‘next big thing’ and constantly wanting to tinker than more experienced workers do.

But disregarding older workers as a result of prejudice, unconscious or otherwise, is “short-sighted” and does not necessarily lead to hiring the best candidate, believes Hired.com’s Dragovich. She points out:

Organisations have much to be gained from looking to more experienced hires. For example, if they’ve worked for larger organisations, experienced hires will have a solid understanding of organisational structure and the infrastructures required to support growth as well as softer skills such as problem-solving and consulting senior stakeholders.

As to where older workers go after the age or 40 or so is unclear. While some will inevitably take up senior positions in tech or digital companies, these are by their very nature limited in number. The rest, it appears, either set up as independent consultants and contractors or, sadly, even leave the industry to explore pastures new.

My take

While issues such as gender, race and sexuality may have had a higher profile in the diversity and inclusion stakes to date, there has been a marked increase over the last year in the number of age discrimination cases in the US-based tech industry at least.

This situation is being attributed to a number of factors all coming together at once: an ageing labour force made up of workers who either want to, or have to, work for longer; an increase in restructuring activity that has resulted in tens of thousands of redundancies, and a digital revolution that has led to changing demand for skill sets, leaving some marginalised and others subject to high levels of interest.

What is certain, however, is that as the population continues to age – in the UK, for instance, a third of all adults will be over 50 by 2020 and, by 2022, although 14.5 million more jobs will have been created, only seven million younger workers will have entered the workforce – older workers are set to become an increasingly important talent pool that should be nurtured rather than discarded due to unfounded prejudice.

The second part in this ‘ageism in tech’ series will explore what can be done to ensure employers get the most out of their older workers.

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