- Digital ageism is a specific form of age discrimination occurring in the technology industry.
- Workers in the tech industry say they start to experience ageism from the age of 29.
- Older workers in tech still have a lot to offer, but in order to benefit from this cohort, organizations need to develop programs for transitioning older workers into positions that allow for knowledge transfer.
We still consider technological innovation as the domain of younger people, while older workers are often thought of as being technology (tech) dinosaurs.
These entrenched beliefs can lead to older employees being excluded from the design and creation of new digital technologies. The long-term consequence of this is an even greater digital divide (those who have access to digital technology and those who do not).
In the US, the median age of the entire workforce is 42 – in the tech industry it is closer to 31. The UK has the same issue.
In 2020, 31% of the workforce was aged over 50, yet only 22% of the entire tech industry was 50 plus. If you are over 35 you may be considered “too old for tech.” According to a recent report by Gothenburg University on Tech Ageism, these discriminatory attitudes are all too pervasive across this industry.
Ageism is based on biased and stereotypical views of older people’s ability to ‘do the job’ and has long been recognized as a form of discrimination in the workplace. It has generally been associated with unfavorable attitudes, low expectations of older employees, and institutional practices that hinder or prevent progress in the workplace.
Digital ageism is a specific form of age discrimination occurring in the technology industry. According to an article published by Researchgate a recent study (Manor and Herscovici, 2021) found that internalized individual and organizational beliefs about older employees were preventing in-depth research into the needs and difficulties experienced by older service users and a lack of training to deal with these challenges.
Laws protecting employees against age discrimination
Many countries have laws prohibiting age discrimination and recognize age as a protected characteristic.
In the US, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) applies to organizations with 20 or more employees and protects individuals aged 40 and over from age discrimination in every aspect of employment.
The law applies to decisions about recruitment, redundancy pay, benefits, performance reviews, and practically any other condition of employment. Individual States also have laws prohibiting age discrimination.
The European Union (EU) presents a mix – with protection from ageism varying from country to country. A recent Report by Age Platform Europe calls for more robust legal protections to replace the current EU framework that appears to be leaving older workers behind.
Companies need to recognize the value in protecting their employees from age bias and refraining from any discriminatory practices.
Besides damaging the reputation of the company or organization, it can be financially disastrous if a case ends up in court.
According to a 2019 Forbes Report, Google agreed to pay $11 million to end a class-action lawsuit involving 227 people accusing the company of systemically discriminating against job applicants who were over the age of 40.
In 2019, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that several tech companies were using Facebook to target job advertisements at younger employees, excluding older job seekers from the process.
Age discrimination on digital platforms is often difficult to prove – but this case was able to shine a spotlight on an all-too-common and worrying practice.
Workers in the tech industry say they start to experience ageism from the age of 29 (as opposed to 49 in the sector).
So what (if anything) are companies in the tech industry doing to ensure that this problem does not persist?
There are many resources that employers can tap into to help them develop training for all employees, regardless of age and experience. However, not many companies appear to be very proactive when it comes to combating ageism in the tech industry.
According to Ellevate Network, tech companies are noticeably absent from the list of the 50 best companies for Baby Boomers (those aged between 57 and 75).
In response to these statistics, industry veteran Kate Edwards (former head of the International Game Developers Association) compiled a list of global game developers over the age of 50.
The 50 over 50 awards were set up as an initiative to combat ageism in the gaming industry. Forbes also recently published its Forbes 50 over 50 list of women working across a variety of industries over the age of 50. Not many of them work in tech, but the few who do are helping to push boundaries for older women in the industry.
One company that does appear to be putting its anti-ageist values into practise is Workday.
Workday run a successful Returnship Program which enables parents and carers (who are often over 35) to return to the industry by providing them with training, support, and mentorship to re-launch their professional careers.
A top media business, Fast Company, recently highlighted a job advertisement posted by new software developers RelevantDB. The advertisement made a point of stating that “unlike Silicon Valley” they did not discriminate based on age.
The advert went viral (garnering 200 comments in two hours) and helped to create new conversations around digital ageism.
In the same article, Fast Company also reminded us of the time when Mark Zuckerberg said, “Young people are just smarter.”
Hopefully his words won’t come back to haunt him as he embarks on his latest project at the ‘grand old’ age of 37.
What can tech companies do to improve?
- Consider their hiring criteria. Asking about people’s hobbies can lead to all sorts of bias in recruiting and has nothing to do with the candidate’s ability to do the job. Some companies have been known to use the ‘hobbies’ section on applications to filter out older job seekers (using algorithms).
- Avoid using non-inclusive language or biased visuals (young people on skateboards, for example) to advertise a job.
- Offer age bias training to all staff regardless of their status in the organization.
- Ensure that older employees are based on the ground, as well as occupying more senior roles.
- Retrain existing or returning staff. Employers need to develop, up-skill, and empower older employees as opposed to replacing them. Older workers often find their skillset no longer in demand without adequate career training and development.
Older workers in tech still have a lot to offer, but in order to benefit from this cohort, organizations need to develop programs for transitioning older workers into positions that offer a mix of knowledge transfer, mentoring, and flexible work hours.
Ignoring older employees and failing to invest in them could seriously impede innovation in the long run. Besides being a legal and ethical consideration, having a multigenerational workforce will help to foster a culture of inclusion and diversity.
People are living longer and retiring later in life
It is typically older employees who are hardest hit whenever there is a major financial or health crisis.
According to a Biomed report on Covid-19 and older workers the coronavirus pandemic has negatively impacted the employment of older people, not least in the tech industry. This means that it is now more important than ever to combat ageism in the workplace and ensure that this demographic is not left behind.
As employees stay in work for longer, they will also develop different career expectations. Many industries are aware of this and preparing to meet the demands of an older workforce.