Age discrimination can happen in any industry. In the tech sector, however, it’s especially prevalent.
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, in 2014 the median age of workers was 42. Compare that to what Robert Allen at Smart Insights found when investigating the median ages of workers at some of the largest tech companies. The five companies with the youngest median age were: AOL (27), Facebook (28), LinkedIn (29), Salesforce (29) and Google (30). The five companies with oldest media age were: Intel (34), Dell (36), IBM (38), Oracle (39) and HP (39).
The rest of the companies surveyed landed somewhere in the middle. That means all of these companies had a median worker age significantly lower than the average median age of the US workforce.
Selena Templeton at ITSP magazine says these stats remind her of an infamous quote from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg:
“I want to stress the importance of being young and technical. … Young people are just smarter.” This mindset goes a long way toward explaining the discrimination against older employees in the tech industry.
But this stereotype is wrong and unfounded, not to mention illegal. Here is why tech companies should welcome candidates of all ages.
The Law Says You Cannot Discriminate
According to the United States Department of Labor, “the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protects certain applicants and employees 40 years of age and older from discrimination on the basis of age in hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation, or terms, conditions or privileges of employment,” and is enforced by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.
And companies in the tech industry have been called out and sued for their age discrimination practices. The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing released data that showed from 2008 to 2015, 150 of Silicon Valley’s top technology companies were sued 226 times for age bias. For that eight-year period, the age bias complaints were 28 percent higher than those of racial bias and 9 percent more than gender bias.
You do not want to join that list of companies. Simple common sense and a true understanding of the skills necessary for tech sector jobs will guide you to understand what some in the tech sector won’t try to understand — that older employees can make your company better.
Baby Boomers Do Understand Technology
The baby boomer generation comprises a significant segment of our total population. Mark Lowenstein points out that though millennials may have become the largest generational group in the US in 2015, there are still around 75 million boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964). The baby boomers generation is the group that, according to Lowenstein, “drove email, the early days of the web, AOL, the late 1990s internet boom, the early days of cellular and e-commerce, played a big role in the success of BlackBerry and the initial iPhone, and even got comfortable with online dating.”
Their generation started the technological revolution we are living in now, and yet, because they are not “digital natives,” they are viewed as incapable of keeping up with technology. But the truth, according to Fredric Paul, TechWatch blogger for Network World, is that the boomers are just as tech-savvy as their “digital native” millennial kids; they’re just using the technology differently.
Rob Baesman at Dropbox presented the findings of a survey they conducted through Ipsos MORI, which questioned 4,073 information workers. The results back up Paul’s argument:
- People over 55 regularly use 4.9 types of technology every week, compared to 4.7 types of tech per week for all ages;
- A quarter of workers over 55 reported being stressed by using technology in the workplace, while 36 percent of workers between 18 and 34 made the same claim; and
- 13 percent of 55-year-olds and 37 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds said they had difficulty working with multiple devices on the job.
When asked why ageism still exists when considering the results of his survey, Baesman suggests young people are more frustrated with workplace technology because it isn’t as personable or clean as the technology they are used to in their personal lives. They are more demanding of technology and have trouble acclimating in the workplace.
These statistics are only a handful of many that show that boomers are more than capable of keeping up with younger generations when it comes to technology and innovations. As Paul Bernard, an executive coach and regular contributor to Next Avenue, says: “It’s dangerous for companies to assume that if you’re under 35, you’re tech savvy. I’ve seen that many older people are able to combine tech-savvy with communication skills — almost without exception, it’s easier for older workers to pick up more tech skills than younger workers, who are tech-savvy, to pick up communication skills.”
Hiring Older Workers Is Good Business Sense
Michael Lewis notes that baby boomers make up the largest pool of trained future employees for businesses in the US, and, according to AARP Chief Executive Officer Jo Ann Jenkins, employers who hire an older worker gain a “loyal, focused” employee who brings a wealth of experience that younger candidates don’t have. It doesn’t stand to reason that any company would automatically eliminate access to these skilled workers simply because of their age.
Maryalene LaPonsie gives a number of reasons companies should be hiring older workers:
- They are experienced, confident, reliable, loyal and valuable.
- They have advanced critical thinking skills that help them solve problems quickly.
- They can mentor younger workers.
Aubrey Blanche, Atlassian’s global head of diversity and inclusion, tells The Huffington Post that she believes “older people tend to be better at solving more complex, deep-rooted problems, because they often have a deeper level of understanding of current systems gained over the course of their careers.”
Yet, as Dan Lyons points out, tech companies use the excuse that technology changes too quickly for older workers to keep up. This is an unfounded belief that Lyons counters with the fact that most people get better at what they do over time, often becoming an expert at a skill. They become the employees all employers want.
Bernard echoes these thoughts, saying that boomers tend to have more experience with structure and workflow, which can be especially helpful to tech startups.
How to Make Room For (and Embrace) Older Candidates
Rick Devine, CEO and founder of Talent Sky, advises that you keep one thing in mind when it comes to older versus younger employees: Technology is going to outpace everyone in every industry at some point, regardless of age or skill level.
He continues and offers more tips for companies to help them open their minds to older employees:
- Don’t assume an older worker won’t be a good fit in your company culture simply because of age. Base your assessment of each potential hire on skill alone.
- Use technology to eliminate bias and gather objective data about a candidate’s skills and how they would apply to the position.
- Commit to continuing education for all employees.
These small shifts in the mindsets of hiring managers can have a positive impact on an organization.
For one thing, recruiting and hiring isn’t getting any easier. Katie Tierney and the team at Bullhorn found that six in 10 respondents cite talent shortage as a major obstacle. This data comes from Bullhorn’s seventh annual study of the recruitment industry.
And Devine notes that recruitment will only become more difficult as demand for technical jobs grows and new technologies affect all jobs. He advises that companies consider older workers for the relevant skills they do have — then train them on the skills they need.
In a multi-generational team, everyone will learn from each other, creating a stronger team and a stronger company. As Rob Schultz notes, a multi-generational workforce forces employees to step outside of their comfort zones and collaborate. Younger workers with less experience in the gain advice from experienced workers. Older workers, in turn, gain insights into new technologies and evolving social norms.
This is a win-win situation for any organization. Companies, especially those in the tech sector, can only benefit from changing their hiring practices to include anyone whose skills match those needed for the work, young or old.
Shanil Kaderali is a strategic talent acquisition leader with global experience. He's managed and led recruitment functions at companies like Cisco Systems, Symantec, WellPoint, as well as having worked for several Baker's Dozen RPO winners.
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