The high-tech industry — particularly Silicon Valley — has been getting a bad rap lately for ageism, either for refusing to hire seasoned workers or for laying them off to replace them with people thought to be cheaper, more up to date on technology, or more energetic. But the industry was recently reminded about the expertise and skills its older workers have.
It was ascertained last month that Voyager, a spacecraft sent up in 1977, had become the first man-made object to leave the solar system. Not only were today’s leaders of the project aged 52 and 77, but the 52-year-old, Suzanne Dodd, had to coax another 77-year-old engineer, Lawrence Zottarelli, out of retirement to modify the old technology so it could store more data. It seems the young engineers, growing up in an era of unlimited storage, didn’t know how to tackle the problem.
Despite this obvious benefit of seasoned workers, the subject of ageism came up again this summer, when a survey of successful technology companies found that they were young — very young. PayScale looked at the median age of 32 technology companies, and found that just six of them had a median age greater than 35 years old, reports the New York Times. “Eight of the companies, the study said, had median employee age of 30 or younger.” In comparison, the Times reported, the median age of the American worker was 42.3 years old.
The companies with the oldest workers? Hewlett – Packard (41), I.B.M. Global Services (38), Oracle (38), Nokia(36), Dell (37) and Sony (36). The youngest? Epic Games (26); Facebook (28); Zynga (28); Google (29); and AOL, Blizzard Entertainment, InfoSys, and Monster.com (all 30). Notes the Times, “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only shoe stores and restaurants have workers with a median age less than 30.”
No less a professional than Jimmy Wales — who founded Wikipedia at 35, the age at which Silicon Valley professionals are considered to be “over the hill” — has criticized Silicon Valley for its age myopia, saying that successful young entrepreneurs such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg are the exception, not the rule. And statistics back him up, writes ReadWrite, such as:
- The average age of a successful entrepreneur in high-growth industries such as computers, health care, and aerospace is 40.
- Twice as many successful entrepreneurs are over 50 as under 25.
- 75% have more than six years of industry experience and 50% have more than 10 years when they create their startup.
- The highest rate of entrepreneurship in America has shifted to the 55–64 age group, with people over 55 almost twice as likely to found successful companies than those between 20 and 34 – in fact, the 20-34 age bracket has the lowest rate of entrepreneurial activity.
A Quora question on the subject resulted in a long list of entrepreneurs over 35 — many of whom responded to the question personally. At the same time, reports Reuters, a number of venture capitalists prefer to fund startups only from young people.
Companies and executives have come out and said that they’re planning to hire younger workers, writes CIO.com noting that Cisco said it would be hiring 2,000 Millennials, while at the same time laying off 12,000 other, presumably older, mid-tier workers.
Reuters quoted one recruiter who was told that a company was looking to hire someone “around 26.” Similarly, Zuckerberg reportedly said, “I want to stress the importance of being young and technical. Young people are just smarter. Why are most chess masters under 30?” (Though, notes the San Francisco Chronicle, this isn’t accurate: “Viswanathan Anand, last year’s world chess champion, who will be defending his crown in November, is 43 years old.”)
Ironically, this is all happening at the same time that some of these companies are lobbying Congress to make it easier to hire workers outside the U.S., saying they’re having too much trouble finding employees — and at the same time that the industry is fighting accusations of sexism by saying it’s actually a meritocracy.
(It’s not just technology. There are also accusations of ageism in accountancy, of all things, with 48% of accountants surveyed believing that it’s more difficult to get a job in their field after the age of 40. But technology gets most of the press.)
Avoid ageism. It isn’t rocket science. Even when it is.
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