Growing older: what

“I am not 45. I am a 20-year-old with twenty-five years of experience,” proclaimed a t-shirt I once spotted in a crowd. Now, if I were to guess the profession of the t-shirt wearer, I would say that person was not a doctor, lawyer or teacher. In those professions — and in many others — the older you get, the more respected and sought-after you become. This person could only be an IT professional, probably looking for work.

Is it possible to talk about an age divide in IT? Most would agree it is. Even for those who are young and trained in the latest skills, landing a job and starting a career these days is no longer as easy as some college ads claim. How fare those who have spent a long time in the field?

The challenge

The future for aging IT workers doesn’t look very rosy; there are tales of a subtle bias against aging IT professionals who are trying to find and maintain employment or upgrade skills.

Once they hit their 40s, IT workers have reason to feel insecure in their profession: The field is notorious for its ever-accelerating pace of change and for how quickly yesterday’s hot skill becomes obsolete. With recent cuts in government subsidies for training and with so many high-tech companies stuck in survival mode, IT workers have to manage their own skills: They must choose the technology and pay for the training with no promise of a job in the end. Whether you’re employed or looking, it is not easy to keep up skill and spirit while constantly re-inventing yourself.

Some IT pros will tell you that, despite years of putting forth one’s best efforts, achieving great results and displaying a positive attitude, dismissal could be just around the corner and it could be difficult to find another position. Others will say the only way to advance one’s career and remain marketable is to switch employers every two or three years.

Still others, after having already transitioned through several technologies (mainframe, client-server, Internet) and paradigms (procedural, relational, object-oriented) with all their complexities, will have reached a plateau in their career because it is not possible to advance to the management ranks. Some older workers may also develop what may be perceived as an attitude problem: their cynicism increases, their enthusiasm erodes and they start to question everything. Often, this is something younger managers may find difficult to handle — and may prefer to avoid altogether.

So is it all doom and gloom for the aging IT worker?

The opportunity

Unlike the traditional goods and services sectors, the IT industry has not yet experienced the massive retirement tide and does not seem to be worried about losing a good chunk of its labour force once baby boomers stop working. Also, talent loss does not seem to be a huge concern because skills evolve so quickly anyway.

But, the IT industry will have to take a good look at its demographics because its labour pool is aging. Now that the glamour of “fast IT money” is a thing of the past, replaced with the reality of fewer opportunities, down-to-earth rates and long hours, fewer young people may choose to enter the IT field. Meanwhile, many older IT workers will want to remain active.

Older IT workers have the advantage of possessing discipline and maturity, characteristics that only come with age and experience, and as the IT industry itself matures, it will seek and place increased value on these attributes. The dotcom bust teaches that technological prowess per se, will not get any business very far.

Lingering legacy technology is also good news for the maturing IT worker. Many solid companies still rely on 20- or 30-year old technology that runs the transactional backbone of the business. This trend will continue, with some of today’s systems eventually becoming legacy technology that will have to be supported.

The younger crowd is not very likely to embrace this area because they don’t see how working with legacy technology will give them an opportunity to grow their skills. However, this area presents attractive opportunities to aging workers who may be interested in developing portable skills: analysis, planning, methodologies, quality assurance and system and customer support.

The conclusion

Aging is a phenomenon that embraces not only the IT workforce but the whole industry. If IT is to prove itself a truly progressive force in an economic and socio-demographic sense, IT professionals of all ages at both ends of the corporate ladder need to acknowledge and creatively manage this fact of life.

Andronache is a Toronto-based application developer who works for a large IT firm. She can be reached at [email protected].

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