Age bias in IT: The reality behind the rumors

Is high tech really that tough on older workers? Or are they simply not pulling their weight in an industry that never stops innovating?

Editor's note: This story took home the gold for Web Feature Article in the ASBPE's 2012 Azbee Awards of Excellence.

Age bias: Some consider it IT's dirty little secret, or even IT's big open secret.

Does IT have an age problem?

Most high-tech employers would likely deny that age discrimination is an issue at their company. But many IT workers over 50 beg to differ, saying they have experienced age bias or know someone who has.

The bias can take several forms, they say. Their salaries might stagnate. They might have few or no opportunities for advancement. They might not be included in training and professional development programs. And they could be the first to be laid off and the last to be hired.

As a result, they may be hit harder by the recession. According to recent U.S. government data, unemployment rates for older IT professionals increased faster than they did for younger tech workers since the recession began some three years ago.

All of that can add up to a tough road for older people in high tech.

Age bias is "something that no [employer] talks about. But it's a reality in tech that if you're 45 years of age and still writing C code or Cobol code and making $150,000 a year, the likelihood is that you won't be employed very long," says Vivek Wadhwa, who currently holds academic positions at several universities, including UC Berkeley, Duke and Harvard.

As Wadhwa's observation indicates, "age bias" is a simplistic label for a complicated set of factors that influence the job prospects for senior tech employees. When considering workers over the age of 50, employers take the following factors into account:

• The relevance, applicability and currency of their skills, which may or may not be up to par with those of younger employees.

• The level of compensation they expect, which is typically higher than the salaries younger people seek.

• Their behaviors and attitudes, which can become rigid and narrow-minded with age.

• Their energy level, which is presumed to be less than that of a 25-year-old.

While none of these generalizations is necessarily true for any particular candidate, each is a stereotypical assumption about older workers. What's more, they are all logical and legal reasons for an employer to fire, or not hire, someone.

"If you can hire someone fresh out of college for $60,000 who is likely to know the latest technology, or you can hire someone 45 years old who's making $140,000, who are you going to hire? That's the harsh reality, whether we like it or not," says Wadhwa, 53, who started his career in IT as a programmer, then went on to be an entrepreneur before entering academia.

Robert Ayr hears that message loud and clear. At 57, he's fully and happily employed in IT as the manager of production services at Irving, Texas-based VHA Inc., a national network of not-for-profit healthcare organizations. He gives himself credit for managing his career well through turbulent times, but at the same time, he can't help but look over his shoulder.

By his own estimate, since he graduated college in 1977, Ayr has held nine or 10 technology positions all over the country -- in California, Massachusetts, Texas and New York. "Especially in the beginning, I was moving around all over the place -- to expand my knowledge base and to further my career," he says.

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