Pull-dated personnel: The problem of ageism is alive and well in the IT industry
This feature first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
An industry acquaintance of mine recently shared a story of the last office IT job he held. His manager at the company was a young adult nearly half his age, and none of the other team members in the department he worked in had even turned 30.
One morning, my friend was asked to start using a web analytics tool he hadn’t worked with before. One of his younger coworkers spent an hour or so showing him the software’s dashboard and deeper configuration options. My colleague found some of the interface to be unintuitive and had to ask several questions during the ad hoc training session.
Later that afternoon, my colleague was making his way back from the coffee machine to his office when he passed by the partially open office door of the coworker who had been helping him learn the web analytics software that morning.
His steps slowed as he heard his name mentioned, and he listened as the coworker (in a voice clearly audible out in the hallway) laughingly described to another team member the difficulties the older man had experienced trying to learn the unfamiliar software.
“Wow,” the second employee said with a discernable verbal sarcastic eye roll, “I guess it’s true: You really CAN’T teach old dogs new tricks.”
Too old to function?
Simply expressed, ageism is discrimination that targets an individual because of how old they are. While it is not unique to the information technology realm, ageism is arguably more keenly felt in IT than in any other industry — with the possible exception of women in movies and television. Most actresses are dismayingly well accustomed to struggling against age-related biases.
Ageism is not a new or recent development. In the United States, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act was passed by the US Congress in 1967 — 52 years ago! — making it illegal for any employer “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s age.”
There are sections of the ADEA legislation that read like they were written last week. One of the congressional findings listed in the law is arguably timelier today than it was more than a half-century in the past:
“ … the incidence of unemployment, especially long-term unemployment with resultant deterioration of skill, morale, and employer acceptability is, relative to the younger ages, high among older workers; their numbers are great and growing; and their employment problems grave.”
When you work in the IT industry, you will eventually have a moment when you feel like you have a Logan’s Run “life clock” crystal embedded in your hand. The Logan’s Run movie, featuring a dystopic future where adults are forced to end their lives at the age of 30, is only slightly less pessimistic than a recent survey of startup tech company founders in which a majority of them said they believe that ageism against tech professionals begins at age 36.
This should be troubling news for tech mogul Mark Zuckerberg, seeing as how he will turn 35 in May. Zuckerberg is the same person who, as a 22-year-old wunderkind, hinted that tech companies shouldn’t hire anyone over the age of 30. Perhaps he can post a mea culpa on his Facebook page while gumming down his birthday cake mush.
Clearing out ‘dead wood’
Ageism in IT is never more clearly revealed than when significant staff layoffs take place in large corporations. Older longtime employees are typically the major target when personnel are being downsized. There are two key reasons why this is so.
First, longtime employees are generally more expensive to keep on the payroll than their less-seasoned counterparts, as they have earned more scheduled merit raises and/or performance-based compensation bumps. IT companies looking to cut expenses through layoffs traditionally go after older, more established workers to get a bigger bang for their pink slips.
(Aside: This behavior is expressly prohibited in the United States under ADEA legislation, and yet there are few stories of a successful legal challenge by an older employee who was obviously chosen for termination based on the size of their payroll cost.)
The other key reason why older IT workers are the primary targets of layoffs is because they can typically be replaced by new hires who cost between 10 and 30 percent less in salaries, vacation days, and other compensation items.
Of course, culling the older personnel out of a business, often rationalized by aphoristic “out with the old blood, in with the new” arguments, serves only to temporarily increase profits. At the same time, businesses are destabilizing established workforces and minimizing the value of older IT professionals.
(Aside No. 2: Younger employees just starting their careers are often more willing to “go the extra mile” by working longer hours, for less money, so that they can make a good impression on their employers. Older, well established employees are more likely to question inequitable work arrangements and insist on better solutions.)
An ingrained prejudice
As mentioned earlier, ageism is found across multiple industries worldwide, but there is a keener edge to the prejudice directed at older workers in the IT industry. Since the dot-com era, IT has been marketed as a “young person’s game,” one which has come to automatically equate age with stagnation. At some point in the ongoing evolution of the IT industry, gray hair became the new scarlet letter.
Ageism in IT is bolstered by the false premise that older IT professionals can’t keep up with the pace of technological change, making them a liability on any tech company’s staff. This kind of “keep up, Grandpa” dismissiveness, however, is used to marginalize older workers in nearly every professional setting, from sales and marketing to human resources. It is a terrible argument that has no more validity in IT than it does in any other work environment.
The leaders of prominent tech companies have done little to reduce ageism in the workplace. Today’s Silicon Valley CEOs extol their companies’ diversity initiatives and affirmative hiring practices when it comes to employing visible minorities, women, and the disabled. Yet these same CEOs have little to say about the value of older employees, or why such workers are regularly selected for mandatory “termination without cause” packages.
If you are a 40-something working in IT, then chances are you are viewed by your co-workers as someone pushing the limits of your career lifespan. If you are a 50-something working in IT, then you may find yourself relegated to the status of Ancient One, an aged mystic who is asked to tell stories about Token Ring networking and people using image frames on webpages — at least until the next wave of corporate layoffs comes to push out the old blood.
Strategies for avoiding ageism
Until corporate executives and the justice system begin treating ageism as seriously as other forms of discrimination, older IT workers need to take a strategic approach to avoiding age-based prejudice.
The following tips are not meant to be ironic or sarcastic. In truth, it should not be necessary for anyone to obfuscate about their age when applying for jobs or while they’re in the workplace.
For now, however, here are some things you can do to keep IT companies and coworkers from judging you based solely on how old you are.
Remove the ‘age lines’ from your résumé
You can prevent your résumé from looking like a historical document by customizing certain pieces of information on it. Give your education credentials without listing years of graduation, and don’t include older IT certifications. You may still be proud of your MCSE on Windows 2000, but keep that bit of nostalgia to yourself.
Position your years of experience to match up with what the advertised position is asking for. For example, if the employer is looking for 10 years of experience, write down “10+ years experience” rather than saying “more than 20 years experience.”
Also, you can sidestep the issue of appearing overqualified by positioning yourself in your cover letter as being “fully qualified” instead. (This is also a good phrase to remember if the “overqualified” card comes up during an interview.)
Create a LinkedIn profile for yourself and include the link to your profile in your résumé. This has become something of a de facto standard for job candidates. Also, don’t use an e-mail address from a legacy e-mail service like AOL, Hotmail, or Yahoo! on your résumé.
Make the gray go away
Gray hair may be permissible for executives and senior managers, but if you’re looking to get on a server support team or join a software development shop, you should consider removing the gray from your hair. Discrimination begins with physical appearance, and gray hair is an obvious trigger for people who are prejudiced against older coworkers.
There are several use-at-home products for treating your hair (including products for removing gray from facial hair), but the best cover-up jobs can usually be found at a hair salon.
Avoid “back in my day” stories
Animated octogenarian Grandpa Simpson of FOX-TV’s The Simpsons almost always begins his meandering stories about the past with the words, “Back in my day.” While it can be fun to reminisce about the weeks leading up to Y2K, or the early days of the internet boom, unless you are with a group of cronies around the same age as you, these trips down Memory Lane should be avoided at work.
Keep IT current
There is additional onus on older IT professionals to keep their skills and knowledge as up-to-date as possible. While this expectation is typically in place for all techies, some industry people simply believe that older IT workers can’t keep up with the dynamic nature of information technology.
This bias can be discredited through a lifelong learning strategy that pays close attention to the “shelf life” of your IT training, experience, and certifications. Subscribe to industry newsletters and publications that offer information on both current and cutting-edge technologies. Pay close attention to items discussed in team meetings — and follow up on things you haven’t heard of before, or don’t know much about yet.
Finally, if you do find yourself being discriminated against by an employer because of your age, you should know your rights and what you can do about the situation. If you live and work in the United States, learn about the protections offered by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act for workers older than 40. If you live elsewhere, educate yourself about comparable legal protections.