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Ageism in the Tech Industry: A Septuagenarian Speaks Out

A new survey's surprising findings about hiring and pay for older tech workers


As a 72-year old tech sector employee, I am a rare breed. And, even though I am past the average age of retirement, I love my work and am particularly sensitive to the idea that someone could lose the opportunity to work simply because of her or his age.

That’s why I felt a sense of contentment from one finding in my company’s new report, Visier Insights: Ageism in Tech. We discovered that older workers are actually more valued in tech businesses compared to non-tech ones.

The Tech Sage Age

During what we have coined the “Tech Sage Age” — from age 40 onwards — non-managers in tech are increasingly likely to receive a Top Performer rating as they age, mature and gain experience, while non-managers in non-tech are decreasingly likely to get one, our survey found.

And, the study showed, newly-hired older tech workers are paid the same average salary as more tenured workers across all age groups. Workers in tech also experience the same salary lifecycle as their counterparts in non-tech; they don’t, as a group, experience a reduction in average salary that’s any different from non-tech industries.

Hiring of Older Workers in Tech

However, the study also turned up this disturbing finding: Older workers are less likely to be hired by tech firms than by other companies. Our research revealed that Gen Xers (age 34 -51) in tech are being hired 33 percent less than their workforce representation, while Millennials (age 20-33) are being hired almost a whopping 50 percent more than their workforce representation. The numbers are even worse for boomers; they’re 60 percent less likely to be hired than their workforce representation.

What’s more, the study said, promotion rates for tech workers decrease continuously with age.

Ageism at Tech Employers

Certainly, many tech professionals believe ageism exists in their field because of their own difficulties finding work later in their careers. Indeed, there have been numerous class-action lawsuits about ageism against HP and other Silicon Valley giants.

Bob Scrum, a friend of a friend who was laid off by HP and Sun, sums up his experience this way: “Last year, after 40 years in the tech industry, I found myself unable to get a job. Faced with in-your-face ageism, I decided to go in two new directions.” He’s now volunteering with an early childhood development organization and is on a path to open a craft brewery and taproom in Sunnyvale, Calif.

The Benefits of Older Workers

Yet older workers, research shows, are among the best workers for employers. According to AARP, workers 50 and older are among the most engaged and offer employers lower turnover rates and greater levels of experience than younger ones.

Studies have also found that age-diverse teams are more innovative, which is critical in an era when competitive threats loom large. Hiring people “who do not look, talk, or think like you can allow you to dodge the costly pitfalls of conformity, which discourages innovative thinking,” wrote Neuroleadership Institute experts David Rock, Heidi Grant and Jacqui Grey in this HBR post.

Thoughts From a ‘Modern Elder’

Let me close this piece with advice for older workers, some from my experience and some from Airbnb’s “Modern Elder” Chip Conley, in his Wisdom 2.0 presentation, titled the Modern Elder: You might as well embrace aging. And you might as well work to disrupt ageism and stereotypes of older workers. But, whatever you do, make sure you are involved in something that you are passionate about. If you hate your work, do something else. Find your passion.

Working with younger people, I’ve found, is sometimes awkward, so just listen with empathy and contribute in whatever way you know possible. Conley suggests you “trade digital intelligence from the younger workers for your emotional intelligence.” I’m not sure I agree with this; I’ve encountered many people younger than me who have emotional intelligence and, every once in awhile, I teach my grandchildren a digital trick.

But I do know this: Learning should never, never end. Conley says: “Intern publicly and mentor privately.” The “modern elder,” he believes, ought to be serving and learning, interning and mentoring, being a student and a sage.

If we do this, maybe that’s why — as our report suggests —this is the “Tech Sage Age.”

Lexy Martin
By Lexy Martin
Lexy Martin is a respected thought leader on HR technology adoption. Known as the originator of the Sierra-Cedar HR Systems survey, she is Visier's principal of research and customer value and works closely with Visier customers to support them in HR transformation.

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