Woke to IT Age DiscriminationMarch 12, 2018
Age discrimination can be an issue in any industry, but this issue is something members of the information technology (IT) industry can specifically identify with. My goal for this post is just to shine some light on the topic and discuss whether or not there is an injustice happening in IT when you reach a certain age, or if there is some less heinous reason why we see so many younger people in tech. I want to make it crystal clear that this is just an off the cuff discussion and not based on any discrimination that I’ve been witness to from my employer or anywhere else. Ageism has been a bit of the elephant in the room where I don’t see many people discussing it publicly, but it’s in the back of people’s mind. It does seem that there are many more young people in the technology industry than older people, but this also may just be a perception and not reality.
First of all, I want to define what I’m calling age discrimination. Like other types of discrimination its sometimes based on preconceived notions or stereotypes about a group of people such as if we said that everyone you’d meet in Mos Eisley spaceport are all scum and villains. It’s not true of everyone of course, because Obi Wan was in the spaceport and I doubt you’d consider him a villain.
But making a broad sweeping statement like that can be dangerous. What if we said, “Once you reach a certain age in the information technology field you’re not a desirable asset to companies any longer.” It’s not true because we probably all know people in the industry that are older than we are and are incredibly valuable resources, especially for their experience. But if we let the “older people aren’t good with technology” stereotype prevail then we’ve got some issues.
Employers who act upon a statement like this are likely breaking the law. Someone’s age shouldn’t be a good reason not to hire them and in the United States this practice can have legal consequences if it can be proven.
Maybe it’s Something Else?
Please understand that I do not condone the practice of discrimination, not only to age, but to race, sexual preference, gender, or political affiliation. But how about some less nefarious reasons why people of a certain age might be less hire-able in the technology sector.
Older People Make More Money
In many industries, your experience is a valued asset. As you get older, and more experienced, you can earn more money because that experience is something companies find desirable. That experience can help teach other people what you know, steer clear of pitfalls you’ve seen in your past, and just have more knowledge about a subject. This experience might earn you more money, which is great, but to your employer, you’re now an expensive resource. If managers can figure out how to cut costs without losing anything, they’ll certainly have to consider it.
In the IT world, your experience might have a shelf life. Consider, for a second, that a new company is starting up with a focus on public cloud. The cloud really isn’t that old, so if someone with 25 years of IT experience and someone with 5 years of experience apply for the same cloud position, do they have a different amount of “cloud” experience”? My guess here is that only a few years out of that 25 would be cloud related, so the two employees would really have about the same amount of “cloud” related work experience. Unfortunately, the person with 25 years of experience probably thinks that they should be paid for all of their experience and not just the cloud related stuff. They might be right too since there are many skills that are useful even if it’s not specific to your primary role. Things like knowing the industry, relating cloud to other data center concepts, working with teams, etc are all useful skills, but will the employer see it that way? Or will the employer see two people with the same cloud experience and one of them is much less expensive than the other?
Here is an example I just saw on twitter which illustrates this point pretty well.
Is Tech is Just Better Suited for Younger People?
My young son has never used a rotary phone or seen a compact disk. He has grown up his whole life with iPads, computers, and smart phones. He naturally has a mindset about technology whereas older people have had to learn each new technology as it came out. For my son, learning to use a touch screen, mobile device, voice activated devices, IoT device, etc is the same as learning how to use a fork. These things have been around his whole life and he’s grown up with them. Learning how to use them is second nature to him. In contrast, my own experiences might make me less suited to learn, or try to learn a new technology.
Take this example for instance. I write a lot of designs for customers and make a drawings to illustrate concepts. I’ve done this for quite a while and Microsoft Visio has long been the standard for this type of thing. I’m pretty good at using Visio and I haven’t found many instances where Visio couldn’t do something that I needed, so there isn’t an incentive for me to learn a competing product. However, many of my colleagues have begun to use LucidChart and love it. Both of us can get our jobs done, but what if we were both up for the same job and the employer was looking for experience with documents based on LucidChart diagrams? Maybe LucidChart is the new hot thing and people are gravitating towards it, or maybe it’s a fad, or whatever. The point here is that I might be seen as an older person who isn’t good with new technology and might lose the job to someone younger. In this case, it doesn’t mean that I’m really not as good with new tech, but I’ve not put a focus on re-learning a tool when the tool I have works well.
I’ve been in the industry for fifteen years and think the experience that I have is truly valuable to me personally and to my employer. The truth of the matter is that I think it is difficult for people in the technology industry as they get older. I don’t think this is some nefarious plot by employers to get rid of people when they hit a certain age, but I do think that younger people have some advantages in this industry that are hard to deny. An environment where everything is disrupted so frequently makes peoples experience slightly less valuable and younger people are less expensive.
What do we do as we get older? I don’t have all the answers here, but one thing seems important. Continuous education is critical. You can’t assume that since you have a lot of experience that you’ll always be needed. This industry, moves far too quickly to stop learning new things. You have to keep learning new technologies and staying on top of what’s changing in tech if you’re to stay relevant.
I know that when I’ve heard people discuss this topic, I’ve immediately jumped to the conclusion that companies might not be discriminating against people based on age, but that companies did want to hire younger people. I’ve not considered it too heavily because I still feel like I’m pretty young and this doesn’t impact me yet. But as I started to really think about it, it doesn’t seem like age discrimination but rather a set of circumstances that make younger people easier to hire. I’m not too sure if I have a call to action here in this post, but if I had one it would be this: “Don’t assume the technology industry is discriminating against older people or only want to hire young talent.”
I’m interested to hear your experiences and thoughts on the matter. Post your comments below.