Life ends at 40 in the tech industry

Do hiring managers favour the enthusiasm of youth over expertise?

Technology as an industry has long faced criticism over its white, male-centric population. Now it appears ageism can be added to the list. 

In the ever-changing and demanding tech industry, hiring managers prefer young candidates with recent qualifications and a perceived willingness to work longer hours for the cause, recruiters have revealed.

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“Ageism is absolutely an issue and while the HR departments might say ‘Oh no, we’re not ageist’, they are for the most part,” said Graham Martin, founder of recruitment firm Orchard Jobs. “There’s an unwritten set of criteria.

“There are a few enlightened firms that are more open, but when you talk to the hiring manager they’ll say, ‘Well this guy’s not quite right’ and it might be that it’s just because he’s got a few silver hairs.”

With laws in place to punish ageism, companies are never going to admit to such bias, but there are plenty of figures to back up the theory. According to research from HR analyst company Visier, the average age of workers in the tech industry is five years lower than in non-technical industries and workers from the “baby boomer” generation (which it defined as born between 1946 and 1964) are significantly underrepresented.

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The Visier research found that “millennial” workers between 20 and 33 made up 42.6% of tech staff, but only 26.1% in other areas. Baby boomers accounted for only 11.7% of tech staff compared to 26.7% in the wider world. Gen X workers between 34 and 51 were near parity.

The bias can’t be brushed aside as a reflection of the demographic of the job applicants, because the talent pool includes people of all ages. “If I have all these people I might hire and if I am looking for 100 people, it might be split equally in many industries between millennials, Gen X and baby boomers,” said Dave Weisbeck, chief strategy officer with Visier. “In tech, for that same 100, it’s proportionately shifted and they hire much younger – that shows that there’s something going on there.” 

Age barriers

Despite laws that prevent ageist recruitment policies, there are plenty of job postings that, reading between the lines, also suggest a bias. “We want to hire people who have their best work ahead of them, not behind them,” reads an advert for Silicon Valley software developer MobiChord, using a phrase that appears often in adverts.

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Studies show the issue is widespread, with employment consultancy Dice finding in its 2018 Diversity Survey that “ageism in tech is clearly an issue, with 76% of all respondents saying it exists in their industry”.

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According to the research, “one in every four boomers reports having been refused a promotion solely because of their age,” while 29% of respondents had experienced or witnessed age discrimination based in their office.

Firms occasionally face censure for discriminatory practices – Google, for example, recently agreed to pay $11 million to settle a lawsuit brought by 200 job applicants over 40 who had been declined work in engineering positions. But, according to experts, tech giants such as Amazon, Facebook and Google are more age diverse than many smaller companies, particularly startups.

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The theory is that young companies need staff who are willing to dedicate themselves round the clock to growing the company. “When you join a startup, you’re a small group of people that are going to burn the candle at both ends to create a brand new company, hopefully with stock options and other incentives,” said Weisbeck. 

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“That environment favours those that can sacrifice the rest of their life for this dedicated focus to work – they talk about ‘blue flames’, the workers that burn the hottest.”

Workers in their 20s are less likely to have family responsibilities that would get in the way of late nights in the office or impromptu business trips. “If you have older people, they have other commitments – such as ageing parents and kids, so it’s coming from both sides,” said Weisbeck. “How ‘blue flame’ can you be when life is forcing that many commitments on you? So, companies are predisposed to get the younger ones who are willing to do the crazy hours and hard work of blue flames.”

According to research from developer forum Stack Overflow, of 100,000 respondents to its 2018 Developer survey, 71% had no children or dependents, and more than 75% of developers were under 35.

Generation games

There are multiple reasons behind the preference for younger staff, many of them based on the idea that because under-35s were born into a digital world they are more capable of working in tech, especially mobile apps.

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“The tech industry changes so quickly – you get down into programming languages and what was needed five years ago might be less relevant now,” said Weisbeck. “If you’re going to go mobile and completely web based, you might be looking for younger workers because there’s a perception they will be better.” 

While languages go out of fashion, at least part of the problem is a cultural clash between generations. Do bosses really want staff that are twice their age? “Once you find your managers are younger than you, it’s hard to really get on and be taken seriously,” said Martin.  

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“You’re not out drinking or doing the other things the younger people are doing. They think: ‘What do you talk about on a Tuesday morning with this guy in his 40s when all of us have been out the night before?’ There’s not much in common.”

The ever-evolving demand for new skills also creates issues for industry “veterans” who have specialised in one area. Pity the Java developer, for example, and with companies rarely offering in-house training, it’s easy for mature staff to find their skillset is no longer in demand.

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“Development jobs are geared towards people who thrive on self-teaching – programming is egalitarian, where developers who dedicate their free time and energy to constantly grow become the most successful,” said Howard Williams, managing director at communications tools developer Parker Software.

“In development, it is not quite so easy as to simply train older staffers on new skills. They must train themselves, or risk a gradual erosion of skillset value.”

How much ageing workers will benefit from putting in the extra effort is a moot point as research from Hired.com shows that the average tech worker’s salary plateaus at 40 in the US, leading some to leave the industry altogether.

Experienced staff also face competition from younger workers who take short courses and seek low-paying work to gain their first real-world experience.

“Bootcamp graduates – people who have spent three months on a programming course – have flooded the market and created a large pool of junior developers desperate to get a foot on the ladder,” said Williams. “These software developers will likely work for a lower salary to gain the real work experience they need.”

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Lost labour

The frustrating aspect of tech’s ageism problem is that the victims often have much to offer. All the recruitment professionals we spoke to believed the industry was self-

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harming by discarding people with decades of experience.

“Older developers have valuable insight from experience,” said Williams. “They have pushed through complex problem solving and know when a proposed solution won’t work. It might have been in a different language, but problem-solving experience is transferable.

“They’re likely to have a more responsible attitude, because they’ve seen the consequences of careless errors.”

There’s something very 2019 about rejecting collective expertise and embracing less-experienced workers who know little of the industry outside their immediate role.

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