‘Old people are just slower’: how ageism has taken over the tech industry

“If you work in Silicon Valley, you’ll be unemployed by middle age,” reads the byline of tech writer Ted Rall’s Silicon Valley ageism report. “Years of experience, plenty of talent, completely obsolete,” echoes a New Republic article on the same subject. Sound familiar? It should. Silicon Valley’s “biggest dirty secret” isn’t limited to San Francisco. Instead, rampant ageism has become the norm in digital and computing companies across the globe, and South Africa is no exception.

This is problematic for several reasons. Not only is age-based discrimination illegal (according to the Employment Equity Act) and an affront to a significant percentage of the population; it also holds dire consequences for the national economy at a time when most local industries face a shortage of skills.

So what grudge does the tech industry hold against middle-aged workers, and how does a generation so seemingly self-aware get away with a form of discrimination no better than racism or sexism? Let’s start by looking at some common assumptions around older people and technology.

Assumption 1: They’re not qualified
In 2007, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg infamously proclaimed “Young people are just smarter. Young people just have simpler lives. Simplicity in life allows you to focus on what’s important.” Unfortunately, Zuckerberg isn’t the only proponent of this theory. Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla once declared that “people under 35 are the people who make change happen; people over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas”.

Admittedly, intellectual ageism isn’t always this brazen; it is usually limited to the assumption that older people don’t understand or are intimidated by digital technology. And while this may be true for many who did not grow up using computers, not all fall into this category.

An example of such unfounded discrimination is 63-year-old Capetonian Alec Versfeld. “I’ve been working with digital technology since 1974”, says Versfeld, “but despite decades of experience in development, business analysis and project management, I haven’t managed to find permanent employment in IT in the past fifteen years”. And he isn’t alone. Phillipa Geard, founder of recruitment agency recruitmymom.co.za, has witnessed similar ageism in various technological fields: “We have an over-sixties candidate who has lectured IT for most of her life and is highly experienced in programming several languages. We cannot even get her an interview despite her having a fabulous CV.”

This is not to say that only lifelong techies are qualified to work in the industry; people who don’t have a technical background can easily integrate new technologies as they emerge. As digital marketing expert Harry Thuillier put it, “Digital natives . . . grew up using this technology from an early age and therefore are comfortable using it. But that doesn’t mean to say a ‘digital immigrant’ – someone who adopted digital tech later in life – can’t have a better understanding of digital and a deeper awareness of how to use it to connect with customers.”

Assumption 2: They should have an established career by now
“Job hunting at fifty? There must be something wrong with you.” This assumption is quite prevalent, especially for older professionals applying for junior or mid-level positions despite many logical reasons for entering or re-entering the tech job market later in life (such as retrenchment, having chosen to raise children full-time, or simply changing careers). According to an article published by accredited HR consultancy firm Inge Fisher Consulting, even workers aged 45-50 find themselves outside of the job market based on the assumption that middle-aged people are less creative and productive.

To make matters worse, recruitment agencies typically target under-30s and new graduates. One constantly finds digital job listings openly asking for young talent while older applicants are denied interviews and middle-aged employees are first to be retrenched.

When asked about any potential ageism in their recruitment strategies, a representative of a Cape Town-based digital recruitment agency confirmed that they do consider applicants’ age when looking for ideal employment opportunities, following the assumption that older candidates would be ill fit for the plethora of junior jobs (and matching salaries) that the industry has to offer. The same representative then conceded that “older people could be conceptually stronger as they have many years of experience”.

Assumption 3: They will cause a culture clash and disrupt the social order
“I don’t want to feel like I’m working with my parents” is a common response whenever the low median age of agency employees is brought up. This attitude is based on various assumptions, namely that an older person won’t share younger colleagues’ culture, sense of humour or communication style, or that they might demand an undue level of formality or respect, upsetting the agency’s social model. The same mindset can be found in cases of racism or sexism, yet we are so ignorant of ageism that the comparison may come as a shock.

Again, some prejudices may be true for some older workers, as much as it may be true for a younger candidate, but it is an unfair assumption to make without first meeting with the individual.

Assumption 4: They’re not an investment
There still seem to be companies that are reluctant to invest in workers with less than 10 years of service to offer before retirement. Since it is now common for employees to stay with a company for an average of only four years before seeking greener new challenges, this precaution has become entirely irrelevant.

Getting away with it
Unfortunately, as with any other form of prejudice, ageism in the workplace is vehemently denied by those who practise it, and with a handful of ready excuses, the discrimination continues unfettered. “Age is a taboo thing,” writes Nick Stamos, software engineer and Silicon Valley investor, “You can’t talk about it. The way they don’t talk about it is to come up with something else”.

This “something else” could be any of the above assumptions, or any other personal trait that employee feels comfortable citing as a “poor fit for the company”. “I’ve had a lot of positive correspondence with tech companies for a series of positions I’m qualified to fill,” says Versfeld. “but the moment I disclose my date of birth, they cancel all appointments – some more politely than others – saying that they’ve found a better candidate or that they’ve concluded that I am indeed unqualified.”

Now what?
Employers can of course employ whoever they consider a good fit, but should try not to let industry and personal prejudices influence their recruitment strategies. If you’re unsure whether or not your company is ageist, i.e. you don’t appoint middle-aged workers or treat them differently based on assumptions of competency, culture or appearance, ask yourself (or your HR manager) if a younger candidate with the same qualities would have been treated the same. If not, you may be practising ageism in the workplace.

If you consciously harbour age-based prejudices, for example that older people are slow workers, unoriginal thinkers, or just vibe-killers, substitute any age-related adjectives in your ageist proclamation with gender or racial descriptors and see how badly you come across.

If you feel that you are being treated unfairly at work based on your age, visit the CCMA for free legal assistance in accordance with the Labour Relations Act.



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