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[Tech] Age bias: Better skills, worse wages

People punished for growing

by Keith Purtell Dec. 12, 2023

image of man on the side of a road (ai generated www.vecteezy.com/free-photos
man on the side of a road (ai generated / vecteezy.com)

Imagine that you go for the first time to a city far away.

Several hours into the tour, you notice: No one is taller than 5'6".

This is particularly obvious in large crowds in the plaza. The apparent five-and-a-half-foot cutoff makes the hundreds of people look like blades of grass in a new-mown lawn. In vain, you look for a taller head.

Before this trip, you had researched the faraway city, but saw nothing about the people all being the same height. And nothing that would explain a clear dividing line right at 5'6".

You have tried asking the friendly citizens about any taller citizens. Their answers seem vague; maybe defensive. They don't want to talk about it.

This describes any tour you might take of a typical technology shop in the United States. But the cutoff isn't height. The absent citizens in the tech sector are people of color, women and anyone past 40.

You'll look around the room full of desktops and computers and see mostly white, male, and 20-somethings. There may be one or two token women in a team of, say, 20 technologists.

Post-40 workers who have overcome discrimination.... Bain & Company report progress in acknowledging the business benefits of hiring experienced people. Details (new tab/window)

Just as height was lopped off in the imaginary city, so the ages are lopped off in American technology.

Think about the television show "Big Bang Theory". This popular comedy focused a small group of nerds. Originally, it was four techs and a sexy non-tech neighbor. Three of the techs were young white males, befriended by a tech who was young, male, and born in New Delhi (capital of India).

The show's North American audience had no trouble recognizing these persons as technology workers, and did not need to have the quirks of the "tech personality" explained. Why not? Because people have had enough exposure to technologists to be aware that most are young, white, and male. Even if it was just the cable guy.

Those of us in the technology business watched the television shenanigans with a grim understanding of why there was absolutely never going to be a main "Big Bang" character who was was black, female and 47.

The obvious question: Where were Big Bang's more experienced techs in the show's cast? That's a variation of the same question while standing in an ordinary tech shop and looking around; where are the experienced line-level techs? The ones in their 40s and 50s?

Presumably, some people in the U.S. got interested in technology in the late 1970s. A person born in 1977 and who entered the tech sector at age 21 would be 46 in 2023.

I will save you some research and say yes—some people born in the 1970s did enter technology in their 20s. Quite a few, really.

But, where are they now? Did they die? Did they all get sick and were hospitalized? Did they uniformly get bored with technology or find something that paid more?

As a post-40 tech acquainted with other post-40 techs, I know none of these things has happened to the vast majority of absent technology workers. The talented and high-performing techs who began their careers in the late 1990s or thereabouts did not all die, did not get bored, and did not leave for higher wages.

Some were forced out by executive managers who bought into the mythology that persons who reach age 40 suddenly become stupid; the "invisible clock" theory. Some left existing jobs in search of a better tech job, only to discover they could not re-enter, because details of their resumes revealed they were past 40. Or, because they did not effectively conceal gray hair during job interviews.

The message from technology HR departments is: Give up, go away, and shut up.

How to present experience as a valuable asset during interviews. Frame past experiences to highlight unique insights and problem-solving. Forbes Magazine (new tab/window)

Most of the techs I've known don't have good verbal skills, so this HR message tends to get absorbed by its victims. Once it reverberates through a human mind, it is likely to become a reality. Techs either give up their beloved careers, or accept a humiliating demotion to a lower-skilled task. Rarely do they risk telling their stories and expressing what they feel.

Where does all this compare to other parts of the U.S. economy? In financial sector, at age 40, you are moving into circle of skilled investors and analysts; you are a stakeholder. In health care sector, at age 40, your name carries prestige, and you may have opened your own clinic. In education at age 40, you are sought out as a mentor, and you may have written articles or a book.

But, in tech, at age 40, if you have not taken an interest in being a manager, then the Human Resources Department is looking for ways to end your career.

Only in tech does a person travel from genius to fool. Even as tech leaders claim to be innovators and disruptors, they cling to a demographic that is white, male and 20-something.

Viewing workers as stakeholders, not just cogs in the machine, is a strategic shift with rich rewards. It recognizes their vital contributions to the company's success, fosters engagement, and unlocks potential.

By investing in employees' well-being and development, businesses cultivate a loyal, adaptable workforce that drives innovation and resilience. This stakeholder mentality attracts and retains top talent.

It's not just about altruism, it's about building a sustainable and thriving ecosystem. In the end, valuing workers as stakeholders is the key to unlocking the true potential of both the business and the individuals who make it thrive.

There is a growing tide on online activism against age discrimination. Prominent figures include Ashton Applewhite (https://oldschool.info), Elizabeth White (http://55andfakingnormal.com), and entities like American Society Aging ( asaging.org ), The IFA ( ifa.ngo ), UN For Ageing ( social.desa.un.org/issues/ageing), Patrick Roden PhD: Aging In Place ( aginginplace.com).

We are asking technology leaders to adopt new practices based on fairness, honesty, and the awareness that diverse teams are more profitable.

There is a harsh perspective in most U.S. businesses that says the profit margin is more important than anything else. Superstition-based human resources fails even that test, as business research has shown that diverse teams generate more profit. Whatever satisfaction tech managers get from blocking post-40 workers from fulfilling their careers, it is too high a price to keep superstition alive.

Advanced report on tech ageism

Download Visier report on tech ageism


In addition to the Visier report above, you can share business research on diverse teams with your employer. Harvard Business Review (new tab/window)


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My story

The author studied computer science at Tulsa Community College. He began working as a professional web developer in 1999. After turning age 40, he noticed recruiters no longer returning phone calls, submitted resumes being ignored, etc. This also caused exposure to lower-quality employers that resulted in losing tens of thousands of dollars in wages as a result of of management misbehavior.