The strange paradox of ageism in IT

How much of a problem is ageism in IT?

In a recent column in the Financial Times, Lucy Kellaway discussed the gradual demise of over 50s in the workplace. She described it as “utterly baffling”. Where, she asked, are all the 50-somethings who used to do standard corporate jobs in human resources, or marketing, or events? And most confusing of all, how is this the case when the retirement age is rising and people are meant to be working for longer and longer?

It made me wonder what all this means in IT. Especially as a searing investigation from New Republic in 2014 labelled Silicon Valley “one of the most ageist places in America”.

There is clearly a paradox at play in the IT space. On the one hand ‘older CIOs’ get a dreadful press because they apparently still love mainframes and don’t get the cloud or other ‘new-fangled’ techniques. While on the other IT requires constant upskilling, whether you’re a 21-year-old new graduate or twice that age with decades of experience. So, surely having real-world experience would give you the edge?

Yet there is more going on even than that. As Nick Booth pointed out in one of his columns for IDG Connect recently, in most walks of life, legacies are seen as a positive. In IT, legacy is a totally negative term for something old and past it. That could be ageism all on its own.

The people we spoke to for this feature generally appeared to think that ageism was not so much of a problem in IT though. Roy French, head of the UKI intergenerational employee workgroup at CA Technologies – a programme to specifically counteract this problem – says he has “seen plenty of examples of ageism in various organisations”.

However, Patrick Voss, managing director of Jeito, a culture and engagement consultancy, believes “older people working in the IT sector are at more of an advantage to their peers in other industries”. This is because the IT sector thrives on contractors – where the work is focused on the actual job rather than the demographic of the individual. “Age therefore is less of a barrier than when a company may be considering recruitment or re-organisation,” he says.

Yet over and over again I’ve heard the same view repeated – mostly, admittedly from large cloud vendors – that older technology professionals do not understand the latest technology and are a huge barrier to adoption.

Julian Dyer, the 53-year-old CTO of small cloud services business, Cobweb Solutions, entirely refutes this view. He says: “While the very young (21-25 year olds) may take this [innovation] for granted, the real younger incumbents of the IT supply chain could be considered at risk of being side-stepped and made obsolete. It’s the (older) experienced CIOs who may well first see and act on the opportunity for transformation that is becoming essential for many businesses who seek to remain competitive and relevant.”

While LzLabs presents an interesting perspective. This is the latest in a long line of companies looking to help businesses migrate from mainframes. And at a recent event of theirs in Zurich they spelled out their own unique paradox. Due to the nature of the work they have an older team and are as far removed from the typical funky young startup as you can get. But their solution is also critical because only baby boomers care about mainframes and they’re beginning to retire on mass.  

As chairman, Thilo Rockmann, explains for this article “we employ an eclectic mix of experienced mainframe programmers, some of whom are 50-60 years old and have come out of retirement to work for us, and younger developers who can build on their existing knowledge of COBOL or PL/1 and apply their expertise on new open systems such as Linux and the cloud in order to bridge gaps between the old and the new. We see this combination of age and experience as absolutely crucial to our product’s success.

“We also see this issue as a potentially huge stumbling block for our customers. Many educational establishments no longer teach programming for legacy systems, and the majority of mainframe programmers are retiring or retired. The skills of older more experienced employees will of course be crucial in the migration process, but companies simply can’t afford to rely on these skill sets if they wish to remain competitive.”  

In some ways this comes down the rise of portfolio careers and difficulty organisations and individuals face in securing skills for the future. “While the concept of a 'job for life’ has long gone from most industries, this is particularly relevant in the IT space as technology evolves,” says Voss of Jeito.

“Younger and older workers alike should have a clear idea of their strengths and skill-set and focus on how these can be put to best advantage. Accepting that change happens will ensure that people are better placed to deal with it – whether it’s continuing on a career path to become a CIO or to move into the world of contracting which may prove just as fulfilling,” he adds. 

“Experience is a strength, as is innovative thinking,” concludes French of CA Technologies. “It is important to think of people as individuals and rely less on generational boxes to try and lock people in.

“The reality is that as our working years extend, our employers will need to deal more and more with wider age ranges in the workplace. Those who leverage this for collective advantage will surely see better results than those who fail to do so.”


Also read:
Silicon Valley: Ageism vs. dating-app-style mentoring