Ageism has been called the last acceptance bias in business today. An AARP survey found that nearly eight in 10 respondents between 40 and 65 reported seeing or personally experiencing age discrimination in the workplace. That’s the highest percentage since the group began polling on the topic in 2003.
Have you thought or said any of these things before? If so, you have lots of company: “Older workers want higher pay, cost more to insure, and take more time off for illness. They can’t or don’t want to keep up with technology. They don’t have the energy and are too set in their ways to work in a fast-changing environment. They aren’t comfortable with a younger boss and co-workers and can be cranky. And, frankly, they don’t really fit in.”
Ageism refers to prejudicial or discriminatory treatment based on a person’s age. Although it is legally prohibited, it remains pervasive and difficult to combat in workplaces.
Ageism in the Tech Industry
According to a recent CompTIA survey, workers over age 55 make up only 17 percent of technology professionals. Tech industry companies skew even younger. The median age of workers at the top 18 firms in the industry has dropped to 31 and continues to fall, PayScale recently found. It’s true; look at team pictures of startups on their websites. Although there’s admirable diversity, workers who look over 40 are typically rare or absent.
In theory, age discrimination in the workplace is illegal. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) prohibits discrimination against workers ages 40 and over in any employment or employment-related decision in private and public organizations with 20 or more employees.
In practice, however, workplace ageism remains prevalent in the U.S. more than 50 years after it was outlawed. Worse, a 2009 Supreme Court decision made proving age discrimination in hiring and firing much tougher.
Sadly, tech companies have been named (and lost) in some of the biggest class-action cases. The Society of Human Resource Management found that 40 percent of hiring professionals polled said that age affected decisions made during the job application process. For companies offering diversity, equity and inclusion training, the figure was 26 percent. That’s better but not stellar.
Why Ageism Makes No Sense
This bias remains pervasive for several reasons. First, some of these common objections to and stereotypes of older workers can be partially true, though not for everyone everywhere. Second, consciously or not, people like to work with others like themselves.
Yet, as diversity programs have shown, a wide range of experiences can strengthen teams and improve performance. Boston Consulting Group found that companies managed by teams with above-average diversity in age, gender, career path, nationality, education level and industry reported innovation-based revenues 19 percentage points higher than businesses with below-average diversity.
Bias can also be unintentional or incidental. Consider an online job application system that requires a college graduation date. An older candidate can enter their actual year and run the risk of triggering human or algorithmic screening. Or they enter a date that makes them appear younger, inviting disqualification when the truth comes out. Leaving the field or blank typing in “1900” as a protest doesn’t work; a friend has tried it.
This doesn’t make any sense. Companies need skilled workers. Many older, experienced tech pros want or need work. You’d think that during a time of widespread labor shortages, companies would be eager to tap a trusted and valuable segment of the labor pool as part of a multigenerational workforce. But sadly, no. But demographics may be impossible to outrun. By 2028, AARP estimates that more than a quarter of the U.S. workforce is going to be 55 or older. Whether they understand it or not, organizations will need older workers.
To be clear, each of us is responsible for our own career. That includes keeping current with the technology skills needed in a fast-moving industry. And though no one is owed a job, everyone deserves a fair chance at one.
Legally proving age discrimination is a whole big thing we won’t get into here. There’s a lot of information on the topic, but the bottom line is it’s hard and can be expensive. So, in my next article, we’ll focus on some simple tips for getting a job in tech if you’re over 40.