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?

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As he got older, he moved less and stayed in positions longer, but always took care to keep his skills fresh, moving from mainframes to VMS to his current specialty, servers. "I say every 10 years it's time to retool," he explains. "I keep trying to learn as much as I can, otherwise you become a dinosaur."

Even so, Ayr acknowledges that the climate begins to change as the years of experience add up. He tells the story of being passed over for a job several years ago in favor of a candidate who had nearly the exact same credentials as he did but was 20 years younger.

"I ran into the guy a couple months later at a users' group meeting, and I asked him right up front what kind of money they were paying him. The bottom line is, he was willing to work for less. That's what happens."

"I was always the youngest person wherever I went; now I'm one of the oldest," Ayr says. "You still picture yourself as the 30-year-old hotshot, but the reality is you're not that guy anymore."

Older workers by the numbers

What do we know about the aging workforce in the United States, and about older tech workers in particular?

For starters, more older Americans are remaining in the workforce. Last year, the percentage of people age 55 and older in the workforce reached 40%, its highest level in 35 years, according to a study published in February 2011 by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. And that's after the 2008-2009 recession, when many older workers lost their jobs.

More Older Americans Are Working

Year

Labor participation rate

of workers 55 and older
1975 34.6%
1993 29.4%
2010 40.2%
Source: Employee Benefit Research Institute analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau's data on labor-force participation

But are older IT professionals remaining in the workforce? Hard numbers are difficult to find; the data that is available is sparse and sometimes inconsistent. Studies of older workers rarely break out their results by profession. Recruiting firms offer data on hiring, and sometimes salaries, by profession, but typically don't break it down by age.

Other studies track unemployment, but not by age or profession -- so it's difficult to know how many older tech workers want work but can't find it. The picture is further muddied when companies outsource and offshore IT jobs, as well as import workers through the H-1B and other visa programs, which could displace U.S. workers, including older employees.

Add the fact that a segment of IT professionals voluntarily bails out at a certain age, either for another career or to start their own business, and you can see why researchers find the topic difficult to quantify.

One set of data that does bring several of these factors together comes from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The agency released numbers in early 2011 that show that older IT workers have higher rates of unemployment than both younger IT workers and older workers in other professions. (Article continues on next page.)

U.S. unemployment rates

2009-2010

  25-54 yrs. 55+ yrs. All 16+  
  2009 2010 2009 2010 2009 2010
Total population 8.2 8.5 6.5 7.0 8.6 8.9
  All professional 4.2 4.1 4.3 4.6 4.4 4.5
    All computer & math 5.1 4.5 6.0 8.4 5.2 5.2
    Architecture & engineering 6.2 5.2 9.9 9.4 6.9 6.2
    Life, physical, social science 4.3 4.2 4.0 5.5 4.5 4.6
    Community & social service 3.8 4.7 4.3 2.9 4.3 4.6
    Legal 3.6 2.7 2.8 2.3 3.4 2.7
    Education, training, library 3.8 4.1 3.7 3.6 4.1 4.2
    Health 2.3 2.3 2.1 2.7 2.3 2.5
    Arts, entertainment, sports, media 8.0 8.1 7.4 8.4 8.4 8.9
               
Male all 9.1 9.2 7.0 7.7 9.7 9.8
  Male professional 4.5 4.3 4.6 5.1 4.8 4.9
    Male computer & math 5.1 4.3 4.9 8.0 5.1 5.1
               
Female all 7.0 7.6 6.0 6.2 7.4 7.9
  Female professional 4.0 4.0 4.1 4.1 4.2 4.2
    Female computer & math 5.2 5.1 8.9 9.4 5.7 5.7
Rates are percentage of total workers in each category. Data comes from the federal Current Population Survey of about 50,000 U.S. households conducted monthly. Margin of error for these demographic slices was unavailable. Workers are counted in a profession's unemployment pool only if their previous job was in that field and if they've been in the workforce within the past few years, thus factoring out both new graduates and those who have been out of the workforce for some time.
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