We see the stories all the time, both explicitly and implicitly: “The tech industry is a young person’s game.” But hasn’t it always been so? Back in the 1990s, when the Web was still young and only just becoming a “thing,” I used to joke to my work mates that our generation (GenX) had to invent the Web because all of the good creative and development jobs had already been taken by the previous generation (Baby Boomers).
Now, those words come back to haunt me as I see more and more discrimination against perfectly qualified applicants; their only disqualification seems to be that they have years of experience. Too many years.
We hear a lot about diversity in the workplace, often with positive examples like LGBTQ inclusivity or the outing of libertine attitudes in tech start-ups like Uber. It would seem that a lot of effort is being put forward to root out the many harmful “–isms” of the past century.
Yet, at the very heart of the tech industry is a worm in the bud: old people are not allowed. It’s not that anyone would say that out-loud; well almost nobody. Mark Zuckerberg has been quoted as saying, “Young people are just smarter,” but that was in 2007 when he was 23. One wonders how he feels about that now that he is 33?
How old is “too old”?
What is old, anyway? The quip I always heard is that 10 years younger than you is “young” and 10 years older than you is “old.” While often said in jest, psychologically, this axiom seems to hold a lot of truth.
Like other “–isms,” “ageism” is tricky to talk about, and even trickier to prove. To talk about it inherently places you in the role of the victim, a mantle few want to put on. This is especially true in the often libertarian philosophies of the tech industry, where you are expected to be an independent “self-starter.” And, since we can’t read people’s minds, to prove ageism means the offender must usually inadvertently admit to the prejudice, something that is highly unlikely.
There are plenty of euphemisms for saying, “You are too old,” and I’ve heard many of them personally and through friends. Recruiters will tell you, “They don’t think you would be a good culture fit,” or, “They have decided to take the job in a different direction.”
The attitude that “older” people are less tech savvy is ingrained in our culture. At least since the 1980s, the running joke was about teaching your parents to program the clock on the VCR. Still today, older people are all too often presented as being techno-illiterate or, worse, completely technophobic.
The Myth of Aging Out
There is growing evidence that the idea of a tech-generation-gap is more a punchline than reality. A recent study in Nature found that, “The younger generation uses technology in the same ways as older people – and is no better at multitasking.” This is supported with data from Pew Research showing that tech adaption is up amongst older adults, quadrupling in the last five years.
Still, the tech-industry seems to hold on to the myth that tech-skills deteriorate with age rather than sharpen: older designers are still using outdated techniques; older developers cannot possibly be up on the latest tools or coding practices; older project managers cannot be agile. Too many young guns in the industry still think older professionals have their VCR clocks flashing 12:00am. As a result, experience is being left behind.
It seems the obvious solution is that experienced professionals become managers; once you reach a certain level of experience, your only career path is to take on the responsibility of managing other professionals. But that’s not the career path everyone wants or should follow. Management is not a skill everyone has, and being a good designer or developer does not automatically make you a good manager of other developers and designers. We have to seek other solutions beyond management to make better use of the experience these people can bring to the profession.
Asking the right questions about age in the tech industry
To find solutions to the problem of ageism in the tech-industry, we have to ask the right questions. Instead of asking, “How can we hire more older employees?”, we need to ask the question, “What is the best role experienced employees can play in our organization?” This will take a rethinking of roles, and possibly even creating new roles that allow the sharing of experience without the need to enter management.
During my talk at edUi, I want to ask some of these questions, hear your questions, and start working towards new solutions. Regardless of your age or experience, I hope to see you there and hear your ideas.
About the Author
Jason designed the first web based magazine in 1994 and has been at the forefront of digital innovation ever since. He wrote the first book on CSS for designers in 1998, created the first online graphic novel in 2006, and wrote the first book on modern web typography in 2009.
He is a prolific writer (over a dozen books on digital media), speaker (including SXSW, WebVisions, & Internet Summit), and innovation consultant, helping companies small and large with design thinking strategy.
Jason is currently the co-founder and lead creative at InvisibleJets Studio, which is spearheading the drive to bring trust and expertise back online.
Jason is presenting the edUi 2017 talk, “Aging Out in the Tech Industry: Experience Need Not Apply.”