Age Is Just a Number for Old Tech Pros Willing to Keep Pace
Although the average age of U.S. workers is 42.3, as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the information technology industry is still predominantly for the young. According to a report published by leading compensation researcher PayScale, 7 of 18 tech companies employ people whose median age is 30 or younger. At Facebook and Epic Games, for example, the median age is 28 and 26, respectively.
What are the challenges faced by longtime IT workers?
This youth-fixated culture can leave many experienced techies feeling out of place. There is a view in the industry that older tech workers are not up on the latest tech, slower to adapt to new technologies, unable to work long hours and most reluctant to relocate.
Many companies also consider IT veterans too expensive. Even if they get an interview, seasoned tech professionals often aren't likely to get a salary that matches what they're used to making. Adding to the woes of older workers is the assumption among employers that young tech professionals are more innovative, passionate and energetic.
Do older workers have any notable advantages over younger peers?
Whatever the assumptions in favour of youth, older tech professionals do have certain strengths that their younger counterparts often lack.
Older workers tend to have a well-honed understanding of structure and workflow given their experience. This is why start-ups experiencing teething troubles regularly find the guidance and leadership of experienced workers helpful.
Unlike young techies, who are likely to spend a great deal of time looking at their laptop screens and smartphones, older professionals have years of experience interacting with people face-to-face, gradually becoming emotionally savvy and developing better interpersonal skills. Because such skills come with experience, younger tech pros are usually not as emotionally intelligent as older workers who also tend to have better communication skills.
Experienced techies are often better equipped to make independent decisions, a result of years of working on different projects and with diverse clients. The 55-and-older group also reported using more technologies and devices than others in the group. A survey by Dropbox and Ipsos Mori of roughly 4,000 tech workers found that people age 55 and older did not consider technology use at work as stressful as their younger peers.
Are there areas in IT where it's particularly valuable to have a few grey hairs?
Despite the preponderance of young developers, there are instances in the IT industry that demonstrate the value of older workers. Nick Kolakowski, writer for Dice.com, points to RedMonk's observation that older techies, such as 62-year old James Gosling, co-inventor of Java, 41-year old Andi Gutmans, who co-invented PHP, and 61-year old Tim Bray, co-inventor of XML, were hired by Amazon Web Services. The company finds value in independent decision-making, which is usually honed by extensive field experience.
Kolakowski believes a more experienced tech professional might be able to understand the workings of a new technology better based on his hands-on experience with the older platform and his understanding of how that technology worked.
Experienced marketing pros are being hired by IBM and other tech majors. A prominent example is Chip Conley, founder of a boutique hotel company at 26, who joined Airbnb at age 52.
Are there areas in IT where older workers are notably less valuable?
The gaming industry brings to mind an image of a hyper-energetic young and hip developers, in-the-know about the latest in game technology and willing to work into the wee hours. Being current and enthusiastic are all-important, and this is one area in which older workers are generally not perceived to be the "right fit." Of the tech companies surveyed by PayScale, Epic Games employees have the lowest median age, 26.
Culture, type of work and daily routine also plays a role. Companies that project a youthful culture prefer people who are willing to work oblivious of long hours and adverse health effects, so long as they can work on something enjoyable and stimulating.
What can older workers do to maximize their value to employers?
As Chip Conley says, an older worker "who serves and learns, as both mentor and intern, and relishes being both student and sage," can stay relevant in a fast-changing industry.
Allan Hoffman, tech jobs expert at Monster, advises older workers to keep in touch with cutting-edge technologies and work at creating and projecting an image of a "forward-thinking techie".
People who know older technology and keep learning new technologies have a better chance of keeping or finding jobs in the youth-centric IT industry. If you want to last, specialising in one field alone is not the answer, because your area of specialisation will sooner or later become outdated.
Experts agree that the best way to stay relevant in the field is to equip yourself to keep updating skills and be prepared to change jobs more frequently. Do things like learn a current programming technique, or the latest tech methodologies (DevOps, anyone?), or develop a mobile app using the latest language. This can give your current employer and prospective employers the impression that you are in on the latest developments in IT and are keen to remain professionally current.
According to Hoffman, updating skills and highlighting the same on your resume, maintaining a blog, working on open-source projects, being enthusiastic and passionate about new tech and showing leadership are ways to stay current.
Are there concessions older workers should be prepared to make?
Experienced professionals who take up a new job can benefit from functioning like an intern for some time, observing and learning from younger peers. This helps them assimilate much that is new. It can also assure employers that they are capable of learning and haven't lost their enthusiasm and energy.
Short tenures are the norm at many tech companies. According to PayScale, older tech majors such as Oracle and IBM retain employees over longer tenures than do Facebook, Tesla or Google, which report typical employee tenures of two years at the most. So, experienced professionals need to be prepared to change jobs frequently and even relocate if necessary.
Since older professionals are sometimes considered more expensive, those who want to continue in the industry might need to accept remuneration below expectations.
Despite the tech industry's age bias, experienced pros can not only survive but thrive if they are willing to adapt. Learning the latest skills and combining those with their knowledge of older platforms and techniques when required can help older pros to not just stay current but lead. Seeking out new projects and roles ensures one keeps learning new things. Veterans who are capable of doing original stuff with new technologies are unlikely to find themselves without work.