A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 18, 2024

As Economy Is More Tech-Reliant, Age Discrimination Benefits Non-Tech Firms

Age discrimination is a fact of life in tech. The dotcom foundational myth of young white guys starting billion dollar companies in garages around Palo Alto remains. 

And as tech firms lay off workers in search for different kinds of skills, this may thwart older workers (like those over 29...). But as every company becomes a tech company, this may benefit those firms not explicitly 'tech' who need coding expertise and experience. JL  

Amanda Hoover reports in Wired:

Tech companies have laid off more than 400,000 workers over the past two years. Data shows US tech workers skew younger than the wider US workforce. Older workers may be out of work for longer between jobs because ageism is “an open secret in the tech industry”. Older workers are (often) excluded because recruiters assume they (do) not fit into the company culture. Consistent growth in recent decades as the economy has become more tech-centric means that recruiters perceive more senior workers wouldn’t be appealing to employers. “There are a lot of people who have a lot of skills who are unemployed longer than they ought to be. It’s a loss for them, and it’s a loss for society.”

THE US ECONOMY is showing remarkable health, but in the tech industry, layoffs keep coming. For those out of work, finding a new position can become a full-time job. And in tech—a sector notoriously always looking for the next hot, new thing—some people whose days as fresh-faced coders are long gone say that having decades of experience can feel like a disadvantage.

Ageism is a longtime problem in the tech industry. Database startup RelevantDB went viral in 2021 after it posted a job listing bragging, “We hire old people,” which played off industry stereotypes. In 2020, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that IBM had engaged in age discrimination, pushing out older workers to make room for younger ones. (The company has denied engaging in “systemic age discrimination.”)

A recent LinkedIn ad that shows an older woman unfamiliar with tech jargon saying her son sells invisible clouds triggered a backlash from people who say it unfairly portrayed older people as out of touch. In response, Jim Habig, LinkedIn’s vice president of marketing, says: “This ad didn't meet our goal to create experiences where all professionals feel welcomed and valued, and we are working to replace the spot.”

Ageism is “an open secret in the tech industry,” says Maureen Clough, host of It Gets Late Early, a podcast about aging in tech. Even when ageism isn’t as blatant as the IBM case, she says, it lurks behind common ideas in industry hiring, such as culture fit. “If you have a company that is predominantly young, white, and male, it’s going to be harder to get in there,” Clough says.

Vern Six, a 58-year-old programmer, says he recently ran into explicit ageism on his job hunt. A recruiter told him that he wouldn’t be appealing to employers and opined that Six should be chief technology officer at this point in his career, not a software developer, Six says.

After Six’s LinkedIn post about that encounter went viral, he created a LinkedIn group for people to discuss ageism in tech. He says he has often thought his age might play a role in job hunting, but “this was the first time I’ve ever had anybody say it directly.”

Industry and government data shows that US tech workers skew younger than the wider US workforce, but definitive data on differences in hiring patterns for older and younger tech workers has been hard to gather. That’s because so many more senior tech workers get jobs by networking or moving between companies where they know people rather than by cold applying, and that’s tricky to study and quantify, says Joanna Lahey, a professor of public policy at Texas A&M University who studies age discrimination.

Older workers may be out of work for longer between jobs because they’re more likely to seek higher salaries or be selective, says Lahey. But if older workers are excluded from some positions because recruiters assume they wouldn’t take a lower offer or position or are perceived as not fitting into the company culture, that’s a problem, she says. “There are a lot of people who have a lot of skills who are unemployed longer than they ought to be. It’s a loss for them, and it’s a loss for society.”

Tech companies have laid off more than 400,000 workers over the past two years, according to Layoffs.fyi, which tracks job cuts in the industry. To older workers, the purge is both a reminder of the dotcom bust, and a new frontier. The industry’s generally consistent growth in recent decades as the economy has become more tech-centric means that many more senior workers—which in tech can sometimes be considered to mean over 35 but includes people in their late forties, fifties, or sixties—may have less experience with job hunting.

For decades, tech workers could easily hop between jobs in their networks, often poached by recruiters. And as tech companies boomed during the Covid-19 pandemic’s early days, increased demand for skills gave workers leverage. Now the power has shifted to the employers as companies seek to become efficient and correct that overhiring phase, and applicants are hitting walls. Workers have to network, stay active on LinkedIn, join message boards, and stand out. With four generations now clocking in to work, things can feel crowded.

“You have to essentially adapt to how people are sourcing and looking for new talent,” and that’s changed in the past few years, says Devika Brij, the CEO and founder of Brij the Gap Consulting, a firm focused on developing and retaining underrepresented workers. Recruiters are looking for people with personal brands and perspectives, who contribute to conversation on LinkedIn or in newsletters. Résumés with experience matter, but workers need to show more. Sharing perspectives and articles on social media “helps people understand and know that you are a contributor,” Brij says. “You’re more than just a job.”

Some out-of-work tech workers now wonder if they’ll find full-time jobs again. Gabriel Schillaci, 56, has done contract and freelance developer and IT work from his home in Argentina for decades. Since his most recent gig ended last year, Schillaci estimates, he has applied for 100 jobs but heard back from only two. He finds the application process daunting: There are calls with recruiters that he says are removed from the tech side of the business, more interviews, and then sometimes sample projects that take hours.

It’s a huge shift: In 2022, Schillaci says, recruiters were constantly messaging him on LinkedIn; now he’s the one sending the messages. “I always prefer to have a personal meeting, so they know me, they know how much I do, how much I did, what I know,” he says. Schillaci is also concerned about how automated the hiring process has become and wonders if his résumé might be skipped for missing certain keywords. “I think all the automated tools nowadays for recruiting people do not work” for more experienced workers.

Finding human connections can offer a way around that problem. After Rob McMurtrie, 51, was laid off from his communications job at a fintech company in June, he says, he applied to 260 jobs but talked to just 11 companies. He estimates that about half of those conversations came about because he contacted someone he knew at the company rather than just cold applying.

The tough job market has pushed McMurtrie to do more than just apply for jobs and expect his résumé and experience to speak for him, as he did in the past. Now he also reaches out to hiring managers and is commenting on social posts about open positions. “The level of engagement for each role that you want to pursue has gone up,” he says. As of March, McMurtrie had taken a contract role on the path to a full-time job at a software company, and he got in the door thanks to his connections, he says.

Some have filled their days off with new work. Jeremy Reid, 53, was laid off from a recruiting job at a tech company in May 2023. He looked for work for a time without much luck and has spent the months since then building an app called InterviewNext that combines his experience in product management and HR. It uses artificial intelligence to help recruiters with repetitive tasks.

Reid hopes the app will ultimately help him with his job search, showing that he spent his time out of work, well, working. “At some point, you’re going to get asked, ‘What have you been doing all this time?’” Reid says. “And you want to be able to say something more than just looking for work.” So far, the app has done more to start conversations and open doors than his résumé. Still, ageism is on Reid’s mind; a lurking problem, with no clear solution. “How do you adjust your job search?” he says. “You just try to bring your best, true self to the table, and you hope that’s enough.”


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