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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In the category of "computer and mathematical occupations," the overall unemployment rate for people 55 and over jumped from 6% to 8.4% from 2009 to 2010, according to the data. For those 25 to 54 years old in that job category, the unemployment rate fell from 5.1% in 2009 to 4.5% in 2010.

Those figures are particularly striking when compared to the overall population, where 55-plus workers had lower unemployment rates (7%) than the 25-to-54-year olds (8.5%) in 2010.

That trend seems to be reflected in the level of anxiety among older IT workers who still have jobs. According to the latest Computerworld salary survey, the number of IT people feeling somewhat or very insecure rises steadily as they age.

Older workers feel less secure

Age 18-24 24-34 35-44 45-54 55+
Very secure or secure 69% 69.5% 59.3% 51.9% 55%
Somewhat secure 26.2% 23.8% 29.8% 34.3% 29.1%
Not very secure/not at all secure 4.8% 6.7% 10.9% 13.9% 15.9%
How secure high tech workers feel in their current position, by age (percentage of total respondents). Source: Computerworld 2011 Salary Survey of 4,852 high-tech workers employed full or part time.

As to the flat-lining of wages that's rumored to sometimes happen in the second half of a high-tech career, Computerworld's survey didn't turn up evidence of age bias in actual salaries, but employees aged 55 and older were the most likely to report that they had generally "lost ground financially" in the past two years.

An academic study of IT salaries published in 2008 did show interesting disparities in IT salary by age in three specific industry segments -- finance, IT and medical. Although the report is now out of date -- it was based on data from 2001 -- at least one of the original researchers believes its findings still hold true.

"The slow economic recovery and the stubborn high unemployment rate we have right now only make age discrimination even more pronounced," says Jing Quan, an associate professor at Salisbury University in Salisbury, Md. "IT companies are more likely to value IT workers who have the most updated skill sets and can get the job done," he says. "And those are more likely younger IT workers."

Keep up or keep out

The hyper-accelerated pace of change in high technology makes it a particularly challenging field to keep up with. Put bluntly: "The special characteristics of the IT industry -- highly competitive, fast-paced, short skill update cycle -- do not favor older workers," says Quan.

Julie McMullin, a professor at Canada's University of Western Ontario, elaborates. "Perceptions of older, in this particular industry, have a lot to do with competing demands," says McMullin, who leads an international project called Workforce Aging in the New Economy (WANE) that studies aging and workforce restructuring in the IT industry.

"If you're an unencumbered worker" -- that is, single with lots of time to work extra hours and attend training to update your skills -- "then you're 'young,'" she says.

By those standards, Ronda Henning could pass for a spring chicken. In real-life years, she's 53, but by her own estimate has logged enough extra hours and obtained enough degrees to give younger workers a run for their money.

A senior scientist specializing in security at Harris Corp., a communications and IT company based in Melbourne, Fla., Henning has earned several graduate degrees to supplement her undergraduate degree (a B.A. in English writing nonfiction and political science from the University of Pittsburgh). She holds an MBA from the Florida Institute of Technology and an M.S. in computer science from Johns Hopkins University, and she's currently working toward a Ph.D. in information systems.

Beyond that, Henning has taken care to invest in her career on her own time -- publishing and presenting papers at conferences and identifying and pursuing new business initiatives within her organization. "Often that has to happen on your own time, in addition to your standard assignments," she warns.

And then there's the constant influx of the new, and the challenge of separating signal from noise. "I make a conscious effort to stay current, but these days, it's very hard to absorb everything and figure out what's truly important," Henning acknowledges. "It can become a 24-hour-a-day job to try and do that."

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