The painful truth about age discrimination in tech

There are bold programmers but no old programmers. That fear-tinged saying echoes even more today among software developers, who fear the recession provides a handy cover for age discrimination in the high-tech world. But a closer look suggests that it's the nature of IT itself to push its elderly workers out, and in an odd twist, the recession -- at least for now -- has actually protected older workers.

There's a commercial airing on ESPN right now that features two hiring managers discussing the two job candidates sitting in the lobby. We see the backs of these candidates' heads; one is dark brown and lustrous, the other brittle and gray. The managers debate -- should they go with the experienced candidate? ("He won't have energy!" frets one manager) -- or the fresh young thing? And then -- surprise! -- the two candidates are the same person before and after a hair-dye job.

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It's a nasty and effective commercial, and one that deftly plays on a pervasive fear of job hunters: Will my age be held against me? And in IT -- where the popular narrative favors kids launching companies in their dorm room or bringing down a corporate network as a way to blow off steam after finals -- that fear of age discrimination is especially pervasive.

The IT workforce by the numbers: Older workers do better

Take a look at the numbers defining the scope of the recession. When you break down the unemployment rate by age group, here's how it pans out: 16.7 percent for everyone aged 15 to 24, 8.2 percent for everyone aged 25 to 44, and 6.3 percent for everyone aged 45 and older. So, the older you are, the less likely you are to be unemployed.

Federal records show that the older you are, the more money you're likely to be making: The median weekly salary for workers in the 16-to-24 age bracket is about 41 percent less than what someone aged 25 to 44 makes -- and they're making 6 percent less than the folks in the 55-and-up group.

When you look at the numbers in the Computerworld 2009 salary survey, staff-level salaries start at $46,975 and climb higher as the jobs proceed up the (very short) ladder.

And, unfair as this seems, the more you're making, the less likely you are to be unemployed. According to a new study at Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies PDF, the unemployment rate for people making between $39,000 and $50,000 is 9 percent, and it only drops more as your income climbs: If you're making $79,100 or more, only 3.2 percent to 5 percent of the people in your income bracket have lost their jobs.

But older tech workers are scarce -- why?

So, assuming the numbers don't lie, well-paying industries like IT should be chockablock with 40- to 60-somethings pulling in handsome salaries.

But they are not -- and they have not been for some time. A late-1990s study by the National Science Foundation and Census Bureau found that only 19 percent of computer science graduates are still working in programming once they're in their early 40s. This suggests serious attrition among what should be the dominant labor pool in IT.

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