Age bias: Some consider it IT's dirty little secret, or even IT's big open secret.
Most high-tech employers would likely deny that age discrimination is an issue at their company. But many IT workers over 50 beg to differ, saying they have experienced age bias or know someone who has.
The bias can take several forms, they say. Their salaries might stagnate. They might have few or no opportunities for advancement. They might not be included in training and professional development programs. And they could be the first to be laid off and the last to be hired.
As a result, they may be hit harder by the recession. According to recent U.S. government data, unemployment rates for older IT professionals increased faster than they did for younger tech workers since the recession began some three years ago.
All of that can add up to a tough road for older people in high tech.
Age bias is "something that no [employer] talks about. But it's a reality in tech that if you're 45 years of age and still writing C code or Cobol code and making $150,000 a year, the likelihood is that you won't be employed very long," says Vivek Wadhwa, who currently holds academic positions at several universities, including UC Berkeley, Duke and Harvard.
As Wadhwa's observation indicates, "age bias" is a simplistic label for a complicated set of factors that influence the job prospects for senior tech employees. When considering workers over the age of 50, employers take the following factors into account:
The relevance, applicability and currency of their skills, which may or may not be up to par with those of younger employees.
The level of compensation they expect, which is typically higher than the salaries younger people seek.
Their behaviors and attitudes, which can become rigid and narrow-minded with age.
Their energy level, which is presumed to be less than that of a 25-year-old.
While none of these generalizations is necessarily true for any particular candidate, each is a stereotypical assumption about older workers. What's more, they are all logical and legal reasons for an employer to fire, or not hire, someone.
"If you can hire someone fresh out of college for $60,000 who is likely to know the latest technology, or you can hire someone 45 years old who's making $140,000, who are you going to hire? That's the harsh reality, whether we like it or not," says Wadhwa, 53, who started his career in IT as a programmer, then went on to be an entrepreneur before entering academia.
Robert Ayr hears that message loud and clear. At 57, he's fully and happily employed in IT as the manager of production services at Irving, Texas-based VHA Inc., a national network of not-for-profit healthcare organizations. He gives himself credit for managing his career well through turbulent times, but at the same time, he can't help but look over his shoulder.
By his own estimate, since he graduated college in 1977, Ayr has held nine or 10 technology positions all over the country -- in California, Massachusetts, Texas and New York. "Especially in the beginning, I was moving around all over the place -- to expand my knowledge base and to further my career," he says.
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
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.)
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.
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."
To be sure, IT isn't the only profession in which older workers are vulnerable if they haven't kept their skills up to date. Administrative assistants who don't know the latest office productivity software, or journalists who don't have multimedia skills, for example, are in the same boat.
In fact, as technology pervades more and more professions, the pressure to keep up with the pace of change is affecting a wider swath of the population, especially baby boomers who are reluctant, or unable, to retire.
"It's the same thing everywhere, except in IT it happens faster," says Wadhwa. "In IT, you're at the epicenter of the earthquake in technologies."
Hot jobs vs. no jobs
Certain types of IT jobs appear less susceptible to ageism than others. Systems architects and project managers, for example, are relatively safe, observers agree, as are IT employees with highly specialized skills such as scientific programming or mobile application development, provided those skills remain in demand.
And management can be a safe haven for aging IT folks who have people skills. Quan's research showed that, in management if not elsewhere, older IT workers made higher salaries than the under-40 set.
These days, companies seem more willing to hire older IT executives than they were five to 10 years ago, says Steve B. Watson, a managing director at executive recruiting firm Stanton Chase. Companies "need someone who can hit the ground running," he says. "There's less interest in giving a honeymoon period to a newcomer, less time for training than there was in the past." In addition, he sees a talent gap in management, probably created by the fact that baby boomers are starting to retire.
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Likewise, companies are willing to look at older workers who come ready-made with skills the organization needs. For example, Axcelis Technologies, a maker of semiconductor capital equipment, needs professionals with highly specific skills -- including physicists, experts in robotics and programmers with expertise in FORTH -- says Lynnette Fallon, executive vice president of human resources and legal at the Beverly, Mass.-based company. "Sometimes it's hard for us to find people who are good at this software," she says.
Fallon doesn't see any negatives to hiring older people. Because they are mature and experienced, they can mentor younger staffers, and mentoring is "the best kind of training," she says. Experienced professionals do cost more, she acknowledges, which means the company must weigh the cost of hiring veteran workers against the benefits they offer. "You obviously need a balance in the workforce," she says.
Too old to code?
In contrast, programmers who are over 40 can face a bleak future -- particularly if they didn't get on the management track or didn't keep their skills up to date. "In some IT departments, you could hang on till the company gets into trouble," says Wadhwa, "but when it does, you'll be the first to go."
When McMullin has interviewed people for the WANE project, some respondents have talked in negative terms about those who were "too old to code," she says. "People would be giving us these descriptions of ZZ Top-looking programmers sitting in the back corner working in Cobol."