Too Old To Code? The Problem With Ageism in Tech

It’s been dubbed the industry’s ‘silent career killer’, and between 2008 and 2015 was the subject of 226 official complaints against some of Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies. Even more alarmingly, there’s been reports of workers turning to plastic surgery in a bid to combat it. Ageism, it seems, is one of the most common – yet least talked about – discriminatory practices plaguing the tech sector. 

What do we mean by ‘older tech workers’?

If you’re imagining age discrimination starts sneaking in as you approach retirement age, you’d unfortunately be wrong. Studies reveal that in the UK for example, the average tech worker starts experiencing ageism at the tender age of 29, and that by the time they hit 38 they’re often considered ‘over the hill’, with many afraid of losing their job as a result. It seems that within the tech world, anyone over 35 is considered ‘old’ by industry standards – an age where in other sectors, they’d just be hitting their stride. 

Why is age discrimination in tech so common?

There’s a few reasons ageism in tech is particularly rife, mostly rooted in unconscious bias and stereotyping. For example: 

We tend to make unfair assumptions 

While we often think of young people as ‘digital natives’, we also make the reverse assumption about older workers. We imagine that younger hires will be quicker to get to grips with new technologies and processes, while older employees will become more easily overwhelmed and struggle to stay up to date with the latest trends and innovations. McKinsey-founded independent non-profit Generation conducted a study which reinforced just how enshrined these biases are. It found that more than 1,400 hiring managers believed that workers aged 45 and older were “perceived to be the least desirable cohort in terms of skills, readiness for training, and ability to fit into an organization”. 

However, there’s no evidence that any of these assumptions is true. In fact, studies suggest that sometimes it can even be the opposite: a comprehensive survey by Dropbox of more than 4,000 IT workers found that people over age 55 are actually less likely than their younger colleagues to find using tech in the workplace stressful! Moreover, while it is true that our information processing capabilities slightly slow down with age, other abilities often actually improve, such as inductive reasoning, visual-spatial skills, and verbal expression.  

Bias can sneak into hiring practices

Even though legislation in most countries prevents outright discrimination against older workers in the hiring process, it’s still a common problem. A survey of US professionals over the age of 40 found that 60% had encountered ageism within their professional lives, most notably within the interview and screening process. This generally arises from unintentional biases that can subtly affect the behaviour of decision-makers. For example, if an interviewer is under 30 themselves, they may be more likely to hire candidates they feel they have more in common with.

We can even sometimes see this in job ads. Terms often thrown around in the startup and tech world like “ninja” and “rockstar” can immediately discourage older workers from applying for fear that they won’t be a ‘culture fit’, as can unreasonably high expectations such as extended working days and staying available outside of office hours. 

Youth-centric tech culture 

The tech industry often values and celebrates youthful energy, innovation, and a ‘fast-paced’ work environment. This can lead to the belief that younger professionals are more adept at keeping up, while older workers may become overwhelmed. And as firms battle to attract young talent with ever more extravagant perks, they can unintentionally create an environment that excludes older workers, who sometimes hold a different set of values – for example, having more freedom and autonomy over their working lives, and being able to enjoy a greater work-life balance. This creates a vicious circle where more young workers are recruited, and older workers feel increasingly alienated and discouraged from applying for roles in the first place. 

Challenging age discrimination in tech: what can we do? 

Offer mentoring opportunities. Instead of widening the gap between older and younger workers, try bringing them closer together. Mentoring opportunities are an excellent way for companies to help foster productive, strong relationships between diverse employees. For example, why not try pairing a younger developer with an older one? This allows a reverse-mentorship scenario where both can swap skills and expertise, whilst helping to diminish stereotypes and build relationships.

Take a long, hard look at your hiring processes. Try to examine where unconscious bias might be sneaking in. For example, are all CVs you receive devoid of as much personal information as possible? If not, consider implementing blind recruitment techniques where personal details such as name, age, and even education history are initially hidden from the hiring team. In interviews, try to structure questions to assess a candidate’s skills and experience without making age-related assumptions, and diversify your interview panels to include individuals from different age groups. You could also add a statement to your job ads stating that you especially welcome applications from candidates 35 and over. 

Rethink your benefits and perks. What appeals to the 20-35 demographic might not appeal as much to 35+ demographic. For example, research tells us that up to age 24, employees welcome perks such as unlimited holiday allowance, whereas flexible working arrangements resonate more with team members aged between 35-54. ‘Older’ tech workers also appreciate other benefits such as private medical insurance and enhanced pension contributions. 

Revamp your employer brand. Think about your company’s careers page – does it show a diverse range of ages, or is it full of young people laughing and smiling around the ping pong table? What about the content you produce on social media –  does it portray a culture that’s open and welcoming to individuals of all ages, or does it inadvertently reinforce stereotypes of a youth-centric workplace? Consider updating your employer branding materials to reflect a more inclusive image. Showcase employees of different age groups in your promotional materials, website, and social media posts. Highlight stories and testimonials from older workers who have made significant contributions to your organisation. This sends a powerful message that your company values and respects age diversity.

Work with a recruitment partner that gets it. Here at GR4, we understand all too well the challenges that older workers often experience within the tech industry, and have often had conversations with candidates who struggle as a result. It’s no secret that the tech industry is still suffering from a talent shortage, particularly within software engineering and data analytics. It therefore only makes sense to broaden your talent pool as much as possible so as not to lose out. We ensure our network is diverse and continually reassess and refine our processes to ensure you’re put in touch with the people who are the best fit for the job, regardless of superficial characteristics like age, race or gender. 

Here at GR4, we work hand-in-hand with startups as well as more established tech ventures within Europe and beyond to help them attract, onboard, and retain the very best talent. Get in touch with one of our experienced consultants today through our contact form.

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