Report: Ageism in the Tech Industry

In many cultures, elders are held in high regard as a source of wisdom.

In the world of tech, it often seems—not so much.

These days, you don’t have to look far to find news stories about lawsuits, age bias, declining salaries after a certain age or other takes on this persistent problem. What was once tech’s “elephant in the room” is still the elephant in the room—but it’s making a lot more noise.

But while stories about anxious tech workers in their 30s getting plastic surgery to conceal their age make good headlines, we don’t need to look to such extremes to find evidence of the problem. It’s there in the cliched but widespread perception that employees need to be young to have a good grasp of the latest technology. And it’s there in startup cultures that push for long hours and low pay, which are hardly friendly to older workers with families. And as firms battle to attract young talent with ever more extravagant perks, they can unintentionally create an environment and culture that excludes older workers.

But just how widespread is the problem? And how concerned are tech workers about it? Indeed recently conducted a study of 1,011 currently employed U.S. tech workers in the U.S. to dig deeper into the issue, and explore potential solutions. Here’s what we found.

Millennials close to constituting a majority of the tech workforce

In the popular imagination, the typical tech worker is young, energetic and hungry. But are they as young as the ping pong-playing, jeans and sneakers-wearing cliche suggests?

In fact, 29% of our survey respondents say the average employee age at their company is between 31 and 35. Millennials, yes—albeit at the older end of that demographic. A further 17% say that their company’s average is between 20 and 30.

By contrast, 3 in 10 (27%) respondents say that the average age of employees at their company is 36-40 years old, making them members of the younger end of Generation X. The over 40s (Gen X and Boomers alike) have to share the remaining 26%.

In other words, close to half of employees (46%) are Millennials. And yet, only 23% of survey respondents think that this demographic is overrepresented at their workplaces. By contrast, under a fifth (18%) respondents feel that Baby Boomer (1946-65) generation is underrepresented at their company.

Not enough Boomers? The attitude of many seems to be “no problem.”

With the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting that that 25% of workers should be 55 and over by 2019, it’s clear that these numbers don’t reflect the diversity of the population when it comes to age.

43% of employees worry about losing their job due to their age

Not only do employees witness an imbalance in age representation, but it is also causing anxiety among some workers.

Our survey of tech workers found that close to half of respondents (43%) worry about losing their job because of their age. Even more troubling, nearly one 5th (18%) say they worry about it “all the time.”

43% of tech workers worry about losing their job due to their age.

More than one-third of workers surveyed (36%) report experiencing at least one instance during which they weren’t taken seriously by colleagues and managers due to age.

And yet, most respondents (78%) still consider older tech workers (those aged 40+) to be highly qualified, and over 83% state that these workers have good experience and can share wisdom.

There is a serious disconnect here: a contradiction, even. The older workers get, the more concerned they are about their careers. And yet most of their colleagues at tech firms believe they still have much to contribute.

Silicon Valley is the top destination for all generations, but Boomers cast their net wider

Faced with these results, we were interested to see if there were any differences in where tech workers search for jobs, or the kinds of roles they are interested in.

For instance, could the the startup culture of the Bay Area—where workers often clock long hours for low pay in the hope of cashing out later—be dissuading Boomers from applying?

Chart: Where the generations are searching for tech jobs

Interestingly, despite reports that ageism is forcing many older workers to look outside Silicon Valley, we see that the Bay Area is the main draw for workers of all ages, as San Jose and San Francisco hold the top two spots for each generation. It’s when we look a little bit lower down that we start to see differences.

For instance, Huntsville, Alabama places third for Boomers but doesn’t register at all for the other age groups. Although this may seem surprising at first, the city has been a space flight hub since the 1950s and employers such as Boeing, Northrop Grumman have a strong presence there.

While firms such as these may not spring to mind when you think of a “tech” company in the sense of a unicorn founded in a dorm room, they are unquestionably technology firms — albeit of an earlier generation.  We also see Boomers showing more interest in cities such as Minneapolis (home to 3M) and Durham, NC, which don’t appear in the top 10s for Gen X or millennials.

As for the kind of jobs the generations are clicking on, we see some differences, with Millennials more likely to click on the following jobs than Boomers.

By contrast, Boomers are more likely to click on the following roles.

To exclude candidates on account of their age is not only wrong but also profoundly counterproductive, as it eliminates from consideration many highly skilled workers. And it runs deeper than that.

85% of tech workers believe their employers care about diversity, but age remains an issue

Age bias is part of a wider problem, of course.

Although many tech companies are actively pursuing diversity initiatives, headlines about tech’s diversity and inclusion problem seem to be occurring with greater frequency. Recent instances include the controversial “manifesto” of former Google employee James Damore, or the Department of Labor’s lawsuit against Oracle for paying more to white male employees.

Even so, there is good news. The tech employees we surveyed are optimistic about their field. More than 4 in 5 (85%) respondents believe their company cares about attracting and retaining a diverse employee base, with half (50% of respondents) saying their firm definitely cares.

On another positive note, slightly more than half (55%) of respondents report that employee diversity has improved since they began working for their companies.

But with just 40% of respondents considering their employees to be “very diverse,” the industry still has a long way to go.

The benefits of diversity run deep

Research indicates that diversity has a positive impact on companies. A 2009 analysis found that firms with greater racial or gender equality enjoyed more sales revenue, more customers and higher profits. Our respondents agree: 87% of workers surveyed say diversity possibly or definitely has a positive impact on performance.

87% of tech workers believe that diversity definitely or possibly positively impacts performance.

A study in 2011 revealed that management teams with employees from a wider range of educational and work backgrounds created more innovative products. And a 2016 analysis of more than 20,000 firms in 91 countries found that companies with female executives were more profitable.  

Age is an important part of this equation. Research by David Galenson of the University of Chicago showed that approaches to problem-solving differ between generations, and Galenson found that older people tend to do better at solving thorny, complicated problems due to the deeper levels of understanding they have acquired over the course of their careers.

And while some may think innovation is limited to young employees, a study of Nobel Prize winners suggests otherwise.

In 2005 the National Bureau of Economic Research examined the last 100 years’ worth of Nobel Prize winners in physics, chemistry, medicine and economics. The findings revealed that people over 50 were responsible for 15% of the innovations, while another 30% came from those in their 40s and 40% from people in their 30s.

How can companies make meaningful change?

While there is currently much focus in tech firms on cultural, religious and gender-focused diversity initiatives—and rightfully so—the natural next step is to take serious steps towards reducing age discrimination. But how?

One way is by incorporating age-inclusive language and practices into those existing initiatives. HR and recruiting professionals can also examine the language they use in job postings. Removing terms like “recent graduate” and “digital native” could help encourage older professionals to apply for these positions.

A focus on other generations’ needs should go beyond the hiring process: companies should also be identifying and implementing culture initiatives and benefits that cater to not only Millennials but other generations. For instance, while younger workers may want more happy hours, older workers may want more time to be with their families.

As with solving the broader issues related to tech diversity, change will not happen overnight. But considering the value and experience older employees bring to the industry, there is no other choice. To do otherwise is to leave far too much valuable potential untapped.

Raj Mukherjee is Senior Vice President of Product at Indeed. 

Methodology: Indeed surveyed over 1000 currently employed US tech workers with an average of 15 years and 9 months of experience working in the technology industry. Both the survey responses and results were gathered in September 2017.