IT's age problem

Are older workers facing tough times in high tech? Or are they simply not pulling their weight in an industry that never stops innovating?

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Add the fact that some IT professionals voluntarily bail out at a certain age, either to pursue new careers or to start their own businesses, and you can see why researchers find it difficult to quantify trends.

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.

In the category of "computer and mathematical occupations," the overall unemployment rate for people aged 55 and older jumped from 6% to 8.4% from 2009 to 2010, according to the data. For people 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 Computerworld's 2011 Salary Survey, the number of IT people feeling somewhat or very insecure in their jobs rises steadily with age.

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 compensation 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 Although the report is now out of date -- it was based on data from 2001 -- at least one of the original researchers believes its findings still hold true.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 challenging field to keep up with. Quan puts it bluntly: "The special characteristics of the IT industry -- highly competitive, fast-paced, short skill update cycle -- do not favor older workers."

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