The technology workforce is changing.
As coding classes get younger and younger, it’s becoming commonly understood that you’re never too young to start in tech. It’s also true that you’re really never too old to work in tech, or even to start a new career in the field. But that’s something that seems to be less easy to understand, to the detriment of technologists who break into tech in their 40s or later.
It’s something the industry is going to have to deal with. By 2026, workers 65 and older are projected to have the fastest growth in the US labor force. And yet, a 2018 AARP survey found that three in five workers aged 45 and over have either witnessed age discrimination or experienced it themselves.
What does ageism in tech look like? Technical.ly talked to some over-45 technologists about their experiences, and why the industry needs to respect its elders.
Assumptions about older tech students
Most nonprofit coding cohorts are pretty diverse by design, and while they may skew to include learners in their 20s and 30s, it’s common for cohorts to include a couple of students age 45 and older. These students may be pivoting in their careers, starting new careers in the empty nest phase of their lives, or, as is especially common in the pandemic era, have found themselves unemployed and in need of a jump start in their tech skills.
The latter was the situation of Gayle Johnson, a current student of a coding bootcamp in Wilmington, Delaware, who has worked for decades in technology — mainly data processing — since graduating from college.
During her recent job search, Johnson would land job interviews that would go well, until they broke it to her that her skills were lacking despite years of experience.
That was when she decided to update her skills with a bootcamp.
“I am the oldest student in the cohort, which is not surprising,” Johnson said. “But when you are in a situation like being the oldest person in a cohort, they treat you differently. I’ve been called ‘Miss Gayle’ in the class, and I didn’t ask for that.”
Software engineer Raymond Cool graduated from the same program about a year ago. Although he, in his late 40s, was one of the older students in his cohort, one student in particular was quite a bit older — and, Cool admits, he even caught himself being guilty of ageism in small ways.
“I can remember these various little microaggressions like, ‘Wow, look how good [she] did,’” Cool said. “I’m pretty sure she caught that. And this is somebody I liked and respected. By the end of it, she was probably one of the best students.”
The hazards of being perceived as out of touch
Sometimes, older technologists who’ve entered the industry after a career change are seen as less qualified, especially if they don’t have a computer science degree (despite the fact that such degrees can become obsolete within just a couple of years). Someone in their 20s learning to code by alternative means might be seen as sensible, even innovative, while for an older person, the perception may be that they aren’t serious because they didn’t start young.
Gloria Bell entered the tech world in her 40s after leaving the insurance industry a decade and a half ago.
“As soon as someone finds out how old I actually am — fortunately, I look younger — I get this air of dismissal, as if I can’t be quite in step with the industry because I can’t be young enough to understand it,” said Bell, the events and marketing manager for TechGirlz and cofounder of the Women in Tech Summit.
“Even having been in the industry for over 15 years now, I still get that, especially when people learn this is not my first career,” she said. “I have had young men say to me that since I don’t have a computer science degree or didn’t learn to code (which I did, I’m self-taught), that I can’t understand their company or project.”
The dreaded phrase “you’re not a culture fit” after a job interview can mean a lot of things, and sometimes it means you’re not young enough.
“I have had people not choose me for jobs, projects, and speaking gigs because of my age,” Bell said. They would “either tell me, or it [would] get back to me, that it was because they felt I couldn’t understand or keep up with the technology or wasn’t a fit with their all-in-their-20s team.”
“It’s cultural conditioning,” Johnson said. “Our society says no, you’re not supposed to be in these types of cohorts. That’s not our definition of what our society should look like.”
The bottom line: Ageism can hurt the industry
Like any demographic, people over a certain age need to be part of tech development to avoid accessibility issues that can impact a company or product’s success.
“It’s all about economics, right?” Johnson said. “So how can we prove to an employer, ‘Listen, we’re going to help you make your bottom line, and this is how we can do this. You need to hire or retain your folks that are past 65 who are willing to work, are dependable to work.’ Young is not always the best for your economic bottom line.”
It’s like the infamous racist soap dispensers. Developing a product without the involvement of certain demographics (in that case, people with dark skin) can lead to products that don’t serve all of the potential customers.
“It’s unfair for technology to be inaccessible to anybody, because it’s in the lives of everyone, whether they like it or not,” said Cool. “So to exclude anybody from technological development is illogical.”
Ultimately, Bell said, companies must embrace diversity of thought, experience and skills, while helping older employees keep expanding their technical knowledge.
“Find ways to utilize the unique knowledge and skills that these employees are bringing to your teams,” she said. “Building strong companies is not just about the technology. Good leaders understand that every employee brings more than just the skill(s) for the specific role they were hired into. Tap into that wealth of knowledge and experience. When your team sees you valuing it, they will also.”