Ageism in tech: Can you be “too old”?

The tech job market is teeming with opportunity, and demand for talent is always growing. But do you ever wonder if these jobs are reserved for grads straight out of college? 

One recent study from Sweden’s University of Gothenburg found that people in the technology industry consider 35 to be ‘old’. According to the research, people over the age of 35 are expected to:

  • Be less interested in technology and more interested in management. 
  • Have more difficulty processing information and picking up new things. 
  • Be less up-to-date with the latest technology and its potential. 

We know this isn’t true. But if you’re anxious about your job prospects as you get older, you’re not alone.The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that more than 40 percent of older tech workers are worried about losing their jobs because of their age, or consider their age to be a liability to their career. 

The average age of employees at leading tech companies doesn’t offer much relief:

  • 28 at Facebook 
  • 30 at Google
  • 29 at LinkedIn and SalesForce
  • 33 at Microsoft.

(According to Payscale)

But while today’s most exciting position descriptions may call for ‘energetic’ applicants, ‘recent graduates’, or ‘1 or 2 years of experience’… let’s not forget that over-35s developed the basis of today’s technology. 

We’d argue that more mature tech workers offer unique value. And organizations need to be wary of the drawbacks of both conscious and subconscious ageism.

Why is age discrimination in tech so rife?

There are unfair assumptions about mature aged worker

Young people are widely considered ‘digital natives’, quick to pick up and work with technology. However, this can be true of all age groups.

There can also be an assumption that capability reduces with age. While the effects of ageing can be unpredictable, not all people experience a reduction in cognition, speed or physical capability. Mature workers still offer companies creativity, innovation, sound judgement and problem solving skills.

It’s embedded into hiring practices

While it’s illegal to outright ask about your age in the recruitment process in many countries, hiring managers may still want to know. This could trigger sneaky workarounds like asking for photos, requesting your graduation dates, or screening you via a video call to determine your age.

Evidence shows that older applicants are less likely to get interviews than younger applicants, and it’s more common during economic recessions.

It goes unchecked

Most older workers have witnessed or experienced age discrimination (70 percent of IT workers!). Yet only three percent formally report it. If employers can get away with ageism, they’ll do it!

Age discrimination, in tech or otherwise, is unfair and often illegal. But you don’t have to put up with it.

How to combat ageism in tech

Know your rights

The US introduced the Age Discrimination Employment Act in 1967 to protect mature aged workers, after finding that employers were barring workers in their 40s and above from certain employment opportunities based on their age alone.

Keep in mind that you’re under no obligation to provide your age to a current or potential employer. If you are discriminated against because of your age, you can file for a lawsuit as people have done against tech giants like Google in the past.

Know your value

One of the perks of getting older is developing confidence in yourself and your skills. As a more confident and experienced worker, you can provide unique perspectives that newer employees can’t. You’re also in a position to provide support or mentorship to less experienced coworkers, passing on both technical skills and soft skills.

Adopt a Beginner’s Mind

Continuing to ask questions and get curious is a valuable asset in any employee, regardless of age.

You can approach any tech role with a Beginner’s Mind by asking questions, immersing yourself in research and user experiences, engaging in courses and learning resources, and actively looking for ways to enhance your skillset. Be flexible, open, and willing to adjust your understanding – even if you’re the most experienced person in the room.

Call on your community

Actively networking may seem like an activity reserved for inexperienced employees seeking to climb the ladder, but it’s beneficial at all stages of your career. Later in life your professional community will continue to provide opportunities, new perspectives and sponsorship for you.

Your professional network may even become your go-to source when seeking new employment positions, rather than traditional recruitment avenues with potential age biases.

Become a specialist

If fear of losing your job (and being unable to find another) is keeping you up at night, setting yourself up as a specialist may provide some comfort. This means gaining deep knowledge and experience in one area of your role, so you become a key thought leader – invaluable to your company.

As a bonus, having deep niche skills can even set you up to work for yourself or become a consultant if you do tire of working for someone else.

Call it out

We’ve explored before how language subtleties can affect people in the workplace. The way people speak can reveal inherent bias, even if they’re unaware of it.

It may not always be possible to prove or address it, but look for ageism-related red flags, and don’t be afraid to pull people up on the language they use.

How can organizations do better?

Organizations should value diversity across the board – whether it comes to gender, racial background, disability or age. There are a few ways we can address ageism in workplaces.

Improve hiring processes

Build more tech into the recruitment process to remove human bias (i.e. conducting blind screenings).

Prioritize diversity

Companies can train and promote people of all ages – not just people in their early career. Diverse perspectives should be included in management as well as in technical jobs, so let’s not assume that older workers want management positions and should be pushed in that direction.

Watch out for implicit biases

Organizations should discourage assumptions about people across the board. For example, older workers may be assumed to be risk-averse, but this is not always the case. People can even be trained in entrepreneurial skills to boost innovation and decision making at any age.

Offer fair remuneration for all

Recognize that more mature employees don’t necessarily come at a premium (and shouldn’t be swapped out for younger, ‘cheaper’ options). Money isn’t the only driver of employees, and workplaces should be designing inclusive, fair opportunities for all.

Work around disability

In some cases, older employees may have disabilities (whether age-related or not). Organizations should have policies and systems in place to ensure all workers are treated equally and supported in reaching their professional goals.

What do you think about ageism in the tech industry? Have you seen it happen? Have you experienced it? Does it worry you?

Let us know – join our online community conversation.

And remember that we need you in tech, no matter your age.


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