Ageism in the Tech World - Age Week


By Brian Fencil

Photo courtesy of Brian Solis.

Technology is for the young. Toddlers do better at figuring out how a machine works than adults, 11-year-olds have adult-level competency with computers, and 40 percent of parents learn how to use technology from their kids.

All of this evidence makes it seem like youth is a vital part of revolution and innovation. As Mark Zuckerberg put it, “young people are just smarter.” The belief that one’s best years are in their 20s has contributed to brutal ageism in the tech world. Along with employers intentionally seeking out young employees, they also get accused of firing staff for being “over the hill.”

While the median age of American employees is 42.4 years old, the median age of many new tech companies is much lower. The median age of Epic Games’ employees is 26, Facebook’s, 28, and Google’s is 29. Although other variables–like the age of the business, and who applies for the job–need to be taken into account when analyzing the median age of these companies, some of their HR departments seem to have no qualms that they only want young employees.

Service Now, a tech company in CA, unashamedly announced their ageism on their job postings page, writing that they were looking for candidates with “their best work ahead of them, not behind them.” Also, several tech companies were sued for firing employees over 40 despite doing their job in an “exemplary manner.” In these cases, it seems like these employees are subject to prejudice solely based on their age, but is there any evidence that humans actually go “over the hill” at 40?

It is not hard to find evidence to support the youth-creativity correlation; examples are everywhere. When he was 26, Einstein created the special theory of relativity, quantum theory of light, invented a new way of counting and determining the size of atoms, and explained Brownian Motion. More recently, Zuckerberg tried to prove his point that the young were smarter by posing the rhetorical question, “Why are most chess masters under 30?”

Well, Mark, here’s part of the answer:

There are endless examples of people “peaking” when they are in their mid-20s, however, these early peaks seem to happen more often in some fields and are not solely related to aging. The authors of the book Creativity and Development (Counterpoints: Cognition, Memory, and Language) wrote that there is not only a “tremendous individual variability in how age affects the body and mind,” but that creative peaks take place at different points in life depending on the field.

In some fields, like the arts (which are “less logically ordered,” as the authors put it) just being knowledgeable is not enough to allow a person to innovate. To be on the cutting edge of these fields, one needs “to reflect on a great amount of experience before being able to say something new.” Because such perspective is needed, it is expected that people will accomplish their most important work later in life.

In other fields that are “very well integrated,” like math, chess, and musical performance, it is “relatively easy for a talented person to move quickly to the cutting edge of the domain and thus be well positioned to innovate in it.” Tech falls into the well-integrated category, explaining why it’s more common to find respective professionals who succeed earlier in life. However, the young tech success stories don’t necessarily negate the fact that mature minds can innovate.

Tech also has a unique feature that sometimes pushes older people out of it, and not because age has worn them of their creative abilities. Because of tech’s nature of rapid development, the field is constantly outdating itself, and institutions are likely to try to teach their students the newest-and-latest innovations to prepare them for the world ahead.

The constant advancement in technology is hard to keep pace with. The current students at MIT are learning Python, perhaps the first programming language they will learn, while the Baby Boomers know C#. To keep up, Baby Boomers will have to learn each new language as it becomes widespread while they are still coding with an older language. Trying to stay on track with the industry can be exhausting.

The fear that one’s best work is done in their 20s is widespread and causes many quarter life crises, as people feel pressure to succeed before they’re 30. The tech industry is also plagued by this ageist myth, causing employers to chase after new, young people in hopes of newer, younger ideas. Perhaps young employees play into that mindset, trying to make themselves appear young and trendy, especially while it is so hard to get a job as a person right out of college.

However, the existing myth of youthful creativity is creating a culture of expendable expertise as the best employees now are aging, quickly cresting hill into old age, and being discarded like last year’s obsolete Operating System.