Is Ageism In Tech An Under-The-Radar Diversity Issue?

Many startups don’t have many (or any) employees over 50. Is there unconscious bias at play?

Is Ageism In Tech An Under-The-Radar Diversity Issue?
[Photo: Tim Flach/Getty Images]

In light of all of the recent revelations about diversity–or lack of it–in the tech sector, one aspect stands out for being underreported. In a post on Medium, Steven Levy noted that there’s an absence of an age distribution among the metrics.

This is of particular importance to Levy, who at 64, says he is the oldest person working at Medium. Next in line is someone 12 years his junior, and then about 10 people over 40. Although he admits that Medium may be exceptionally age diverse among its fellow tech startups, Levy cites PayScale data, which reflects that the average age of an employee at the top technology employers is around 29. It’s a fact that has even twentysomethings wondering if they’ll be irrelevant once they pass their 30th birthdays.

Levy confesses that he feels comfortable at Medium. This may be due, in part, because he was recruited to work there instead of going through the traditional application process. But in a “sometimes-tense,” all-hands meeting about the racial and gender diversity of its ranks, he felt it best to stay mum when they didn’t bring up the age factor.

In a follow-up seminar on unconscious bias, age was also left out. When Levy asked Joelle Emerson, CEO of the company Paradigm, who conducted the seminar, if she knew of any company in the industry that was actually age diverse, she said no. “But then she added that none of them were doing all that well at other forms of diversity, either,” he writes.

Levy posits that “age deserves a place in the discussion and an acknowledgment that age diversity is a plus for the company — both morally and strategically.”

So why isn’t anyone doing a better job tackling this particular unconscious bias?

The Challenges

Levy and others have pointed out that age discrimination is perpetuated by a few influencers. For instance, technology’s poster boy Mark Zuckerberg made a damning statement about the perils of aging at a Y Combinator Startup event in 2007 (when he was 23):

I want to stress the importance of being young and technical. Young people are just smarter. Why are most chess masters under 30? I don’t know. Young people just have simpler lives. We may not own a car. We may not have family. Simplicity in life allows you to focus on what’s important.

Other tech role models such as venture capital investor Vinod Khosla told attendees of the 2011 NASSCOM Product Enclave in Bangalore, “People under 35 are the people who make change happen,” and older entrepreneurs fail to innovate because they are “falling back on old habits.”

Recruiters have also perpetuated ageism. The New Republic reported that last year, Santa Clara-based ServiceNow had this advisory on its Careers page: “We Want People Who Have Their Best Work Ahead of Them, Not Behind Them.” That’s been replaced with more neutral corporate rhetoric: “We are looking for drivers–people who thrive on responsibility and live for the next big challenge.”

No wonder workers as young as 26 are lining up to get Botox, while others commence hand-wringing as part of their quarter-life career crisis. But for older workers, age discrimination is real. Data from AARP found that 64% of workers between 45 and 74 say they experienced age discrimination, and 58% believe it starts when a person is in their 50s. More than a third of older workers (37%) reported that they are not confident they would find a job right away if they were laid off.

The Myth Of Aging

This, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. Vivek Wadhwa, an entrepreneur and Stanford University fellow, led research that indicates the average age of successful startup founders is around 40 for men and 41 for women, the majority of whom were parents. The Kauffman Foundation later built on these findings analyzing census data, which revealed that entrepreneurship was booming among the 55 to 64 age group. That trend continued into this year’s report.

More anecdotally, we have reported that age works wonders for confidence, as the wisdom acquired over the course of a career contributes to sustainable success. As Nilofer Merchant told Fast Company:

Any student of history knows that the most effective change agents have to know enough about how the current system works, to design a new way. To reinvent something you have to know it. You have to be both a rebel, and a leader.

Clash of Cultures

Even so, the workplace can’t help but be a hotbed of generational bias. For the first time, five generations—traditionalist (born before 1946), boomer, gen X, millennial, gen Z (born after 1997)—can potentially work together now.

As Alec Levenson, a labor economist and senior research scientist at the University of Southern California points out, “There are more people at older ages working ‘bridge’ jobs between what used to be their longtime career and retirement. Those jobs are often in the same field as their expertise, but not necessarily the same company.”

But as Karissa Thacker, PhD, author of The Art of Authenticity, observes, “Ageism is more rampant, but not just because of startups. The notion of ‘golden years’ that is so ingrained in American culture did not include a job, but a fishing pole.” She says that narrative has been drilled into our collective consciousness, even though retirement is no longer viable for many people.

There is evidence of pushback. Data from the EEOC shows that there were more than 20,000 age-related charges brought against employers in 2014, slightly down from a recessionary high of 24,582 when many people were laid off due to budget cuts.

Google settled a multimillion-dollar claim in 2011 brought by computer scientist Brian Reid, who was fired from the search giant at the age of 54. At the time Reid said his 38-year-old supervisor made age-related comments to him “every few weeks,” telling him that his ideas were “obsolete” and “too old to matter,” and that Reid was “slow,” “fuzzy,” “sluggish,” and “lack[ed] energy.”

Levenson says, “If claims against tech companies are on the rise, I would venture a strong guess that it’s from their existing workers, and predominantly cases where someone has worked there for a long time and has “aged out” of the current cutting edge of the technology–at least in the eyes of upper management.”

He believes that ageism is often manifested as a disdain for organizational maturity and having good project management skills. One of the most important skills people learn with age is how to better manage project deadlines, he says. “But young hot shots who are at the cutting edge of development of new tech typically never want to listen to ‘old geezers’ who only know the old tech, and thus ‘could never understand this new thing we’re developing,’ when in fact the principles of good project management apply regardless of the type of work,” he says.

Related: Is It Ever Okay To Lie About Your Age On Your Resume?

As for underrepresentation of older people in tech, Thacker argues, “Just like any kind of diversity, it takes more work to understand people who are different.” Conversations are a good place to start, she says. The recent film, The Intern, could open such a discussion, given the notable ageism directed toward Robert De Niro’s character from his younger colleagues. Beyond that, says Thacker, “The variety of perspectives can really add value to business decisions.”  

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a business journalist writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, commerce, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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