Tech industry: we need to talk about ageism

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When it comes to inclusivity in the tech sector, a lack of women is of often seen as the key issue.

But it isn’t the only one.

Our annual Harvey Nash Tech Survey suggests that age, regardless of whether you are a man or a woman, is just as much a factor in your career possibilities. At the age of 45, almost half of tech professionals believe their age stacks against them.

And the whole issue is becoming increasingly important. In 2015 the average age of the UK population exceeded 40 for the first time, and it will continue to rise.

How organisations make use of and support this growing group of people and, just as important, how this group of older workers manages their careers, will increasingly define the sector.

40 isn’t the new 30

The tech industry is often accused of having an obsession with ‘youth’. Indeed, we found age to have little impact (positive or negative) on the career prospects of tech professionals in their late twenties and thirties.

And then something happens….

Forget about 40 being the new 30. Once workers hit the big 4-0, their perceived future career success takes a nosedive. A third of tech professionals aged 40-44 worry their age will reduce their prospects of career success.

By the time they hit 45, almost half of tech professionals (46 per cent) have a negative view of their age when it comes to future career success.

And it gets worse. With each birthday, the proportion of people reporting negative feelings goes up by 2 per cent. By the time tech workers are in their early fifties, three in five have low expectations for their future careers.

This trend paints a sad picture of our later-life professional careers. Like it or not, we will all get older and if nothing is done, ageism could affect us all. The current sweet-spot generation of 26-39 year-olds riding the wave of career success will soon find themselves paddling hard to stay ahead of Generation Z who are hot on their heels, ready to take over their coveted places. 

Ageism is a hidden inclusion issue and most of us harbour some level of unconscious bias.  It can be so subtle that it goes unnoticed. For example, most of us will have used the expression “I am having a senior moment”, but it frames being older as a negative.  And in the words of Jo Brand on Have I Got News For You, that type of language ‘builds up and wears you down’.

Other times, it can manifest itself in highly damaging situations such as a decision not to hire someone based on their age. Employers will potentially miss out on valuable expertise; the ramifications for workers can be much worse. They could face financial hardship, not to mention mental health problems as a result of feeling devalued in their current jobs, unemployment or money troubles.

However, our survey showed that there are ways that tech workers can insulate themselves against the effects of ageism.

Professional development

Keeping skills up to date is a key way to stay relevant within your chosen industry. We found that when professionals actively invest their own money in courses or training, the overall proportion of those feeling ‘age negative’ goes down (to 55 per cent compared to 61 per cent).

Younger people take responsibility for their own professional development, rather than rely on employers to provide on-the-job training. Despite having significantly less disposable income than their older peers, a third of those in their twenties pay for courses and training out of their own pockets.

For those in their forties, more than two in five workers pay for courses themselves, which is not that surprising given they enjoy the highest median income of all those surveyed.

They might feel they have little choice. With at least another 15-20 years of working life ahead of them, continuous skills development is the only way they can ensure their skills remain relevant in today’s fast-changing workplaces.

Worryingly, employers seem to focus on the sweet-spot generation (again) when it comes to providing external courses or employer-based training. Almost a third of those aged 30-39 benefit.

Other age groups simply fail to catch their attention: only 22 per cent of young workers enjoy employer-funded training. Amongst 45-49 year olds only a quarter benefit and it’s downhill from there. By the time workers are aged between 50-59, just one in five have an employer who helps pay for courses or provide training.

Gandalf-style job roles

The biggest age insulation factor is job role, especially where long-term experience and deep expertise are highly valued.

Tech professionals who are involved in management (CIOs, CTOs or development managers) or who have Gandalf-style roles (such as architects) see their careers much less affected by age.

It’s encouraging that workers of all ages don’t solely rely on their employers to provide continuous skills development opportunities. However, employers must not shy away from their responsibilities.

Failing to provide and look after a diverse workforce could cause of brain drain of older workers, which will have seriously adverse effects.

Employers stand to benefit from older workers’ professional expertise and their life experience. Not least because 40 and 50-somethings can act as valuable mentors to the younger professionals that rise through the ranks – it ultimately benefits the employer. 

There is also something to be said for employers to be more forthcoming with courses and training for younger professionals. It will help them to grow into the type of job roles - management or highly experienced Gandalf-style roles - that will protect against ageism in later life.

Ageism has the potential to affect all tech workers if employers fail to recognise and act on the problem.

There are so many steps employees and employers can take to help build more resilient and inclusive workplaces. Doing so will ensure that everyone, regardless of their real or perceived age, can enjoy fuller and longer working lives.  It has to start with an open and honest conversation - now, before it’s too late.

Andrew Heyes, managing director – South, Harvey Nash Professional Recruitment
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