The painful truth about age discrimination in tech

There are bold programmers but no old programmers. That fear-tinged saying echoes even more today among software developers, who fear the recession provides a handy cover for age discrimination in the high-tech world. But a closer look suggests that it’s the nature of IT itself to push its elderly workers out, and in an odd twist, the recession — at least for now — has actually protected older workers.

There’s a commercial airing on ESPN right now that features two hiring managers discussing the two job candidates sitting in the lobby. We see the backs of these candidates’ heads; one is dark brown and lustrous, the other brittle and gray. The managers debate — should they go with the experienced candidate? (“He won’t have energy!” frets one manager) — or the fresh young thing? And then — surprise! — the two candidates are the same person before and after a hair-dye job.

It’s a nasty and effective commercial, and one that deftly plays on a pervasive fear of job hunters: Will my age be held against me? And in IT — where the popular narrative favors kids launching companies in their dorm room or bringing down a corporate network as a way to blow off steam after finals — that fear of age discrimination is especially pervasive.

The IT workforce by the numbers: Older workers do better
Take a look at the numbers defining the scope of the recession. When you break down the unemployment rate by age group, here’s how it pans out: 16.7 percent for everyone aged 15 to 24, 8.2 percent for everyone aged 25 to 44, and 6.3 percent for everyone aged 45 and older. So, the older you are, the less likely you are to be unemployed.

Federal records show that the older you are, the more money you’re likely to be making: The median weekly salary for workers in the 16-to-24 age bracket is about 41 percent less than what someone aged 25 to 44 makes — and they’re making 6 percent less than the folks in the 55-and-up group.

When you look at the numbers in the Computerworld 2009 salary survey, staff-level salaries start at $46,975 and climb higher as the jobs proceed up the (very short) ladder.

And, unfair as this seems, the more you’re making, the less likely you are to be unemployed. According to a new study at Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies [PDF], the unemployment rate for people making between $39,000 and $50,000 is 9 percent, and it only drops more as your income climbs: If you’re making $79,100 or more, only 3.2 percent to 5 percent of the people in your income bracket have lost their jobs.

But older tech workers are scarce — why?
So, assuming the numbers don’t lie, well-paying industries like IT should be chockablock with 40- to 60-somethings pulling in handsome salaries.

But they are not — and they have not been for some time. A late-1990s study by the National Science Foundation and Census Bureau found that only 19 percent of computer science graduates are still working in programming once they’re in their early 40s. This suggests serious attrition among what should be the dominant labor pool in IT.

Something has been pushing IT workers out as they hit their high-earning, low-unemployment 40s and beyond. Is it burnout or pervasive age discrimination? What are the culprits contributing to this “Logan’s Run”-like marketplace?

Sure, your average IT operation is staffed by people whose answer to the question “What were you doing when the Berlin Wall fell?” is going to be “teething.” But it’s not purely a hatred of older people that’s led to a sharp falloff in older IT workers. Here are some possible factors.

A change in the IT culture. The Net is rife with mainframe operators and Cobol pros who will tell you that they got into IT for love of the challenge or subject. It was passion-driven. Now, however, IT occupations are rigorously bound by performance metrics and other management controls that provide a healthy reality check to anyone who thought passion would be enough to sustain a 25-year career in coding.

Bean-counting. Older workers have a (not entirely) undeserved reputation for being expensive, which hurts them going and coming. If there’s what the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics quaintly calls a “mass layoff event,” the high-paying jobs are looked at carefully to see if the worker brings a perceived value to the organization. If not, the math is brutal: Ax two or three high-paying positions and see an immediate growth in the margins. And when it’s time to hire, two entry-level workers provide — in theory — more bang for the buck than one expensive member of a protected class (that is, older workers for whom the government has imposed more hurdles to lay them off).

The persistent devaluation of experience and skills. Any developer can tell you that not all C or PHP or Java programmers are created equal; some are vastly more productive or creative. However, unless or until there is a way to explicitly demonstrate the productivity differential between a good programmer and a mediocre one, inexperienced or nontechnical hiring managers tend to look at resumes with an eye for youth, under the “more bang for the buck” theory. Cheaper young ‘uns will work longer hours and produce more code. The very concept of viewing experience as an asset for raising productivity is a nonfactor — much to the detriment of the developer workplace.

According to one 20-year telecommunications veteran who asked to remain anonymous, when high-tech companies began incorporating more business-oriented managers into their upper tiers, these managers were not able to accurately assess the merits of developers with know-how: “It is nearly impossible to judge quality work if you never did it yourself,” he says. “The latest fad was the idiotic belief that management was generic, a skill that could be taught at school and could then be sent anywhere to do any management job.”

Another way in which experience is actually seen as a flaw rather than a virtue: Hiring managers are unable to map how 10 years of experience in one programming language can inform or enhance a programmer’s months of experience with a newer technology. Instead, they dismiss the decade of experience as a sign of inflexibility or being unable to keep up — an assumption that penalizes IT pros for being present during the last 10 years of their jobs.

As former Intel CEO Craig Barrett once said, “The half-life of an engineer, software or hardware, is only a few years.” With this kind of attitude at the top, there’s no cultural incentive to foster a hiring strategy that rewards experience or longevity.

The nature of the job. The mental stage that psychologists define as “flow” is one of sustained concentration on the task at hand and a pure focus on your attention on a project. In other words, it’s the ability to work without interruption on a task until you’ve found a natural stopping point. A lot of developers strive for flow when they’re working, which is why one meeting can blow an entire day’s worth of work. It takes time to get in and out of flow and to retrace your steps to the point where you can move forward.

When it comes to flow, a 20-something worker without the obligation to pick up a child from daycare has a definite advantage over an older counterpart with a life and family outside work. And while it is explicitly illegal to ask prospective job candidates if they’re married and have children, it’s not illegal to infer — based on age, résumé, and a glance at their ring finger — whether a prospective candidate is going to be able to sink limitless hours into a development job or troubleshooting task.

And entry-level workers aren’t burnt out by experience. They haven’t had a decade of watching their work get torpedoed thanks to office politics. “You become more cynical about the possibilities of real rewards from your hard work after being so disappointed so often in management,” says an engineer who also asked to remain anonymous. “And with advancing age, you have more responsibility, too — which does not lend itself to that the singular focus required to complete most IT projects.”

Thus, the harsh reality may be that IT jobs — at least as they’re defined now — may be perpetually entry-level.

The tech industry is like sports or pop music: a young person’s game
So is there an age discrimination problem in IT? Perhaps — in the same way there’s an age discrimination problem in professional sports, journalism, and the arts. At some point in those career arcs, the assets that made workers such hot properties — youth, the ability to devote lots of time to their vocation, comparative inexperience — diminish. And the marginal utility of what’s left — experience — is not as strongly valued.

In other words, all you IT veterans are still big. It’s the jobs that got small.

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