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Tech ageism works both ways

Age discrimination is rampant in the technology industry, a new study says, but most in the field say the phenomenon is hurting both old and young workers.

3 min read
Age discrimination is rampant in the technology industry, according to a new study, and the phenomenon hurts both old and young workers.

More than two-thirds of tech professionals over 45 cited ageism as a "significant problem" when surveyed by Bloomington, Minn.-based career portal Techies.com. Nearly one in three workers over 45 said they have either witnessed or experienced "age bias," according to a study released Monday.

Although older workers are often the minority at Internet start-ups and other technology companies, pervasive discrimination may also sting younger workers. Almost three-fourths of technology workers aged 18 to 34 years and 62 percent of those between 35 and 44 said discrimination cuts both ways: Older workers are just as likely to discriminate against younger workers as they are to be discriminated against.

Young workers may also face discrimination when they vie for promotions with older workers. Only 1 percent of the 1,027 survey respondents said they would rather work for a younger supervisor or manager. Nearly half of those under 35 said they would rather work for an older boss, while just over 10 percent of those 45 or older wanted to work for a senior.

Anecdotal research at Techies.com and elsewhere has found that older tech professionals on average are not compensated fairly for their additional experience.

But younger workers who participated in the newest study, which was taken in January, still complained that they were underpaid. Tech workers aged 18 to 24 were six times as likely as those 45 to 54 to contend that older workers almost always make more money than younger workers.

When asked why older tech professionals might make less than their younger, similarly qualified counterparts, responses varied dramatically--depending largely on the respondent's generation.

"Younger techies taking the survey most often blamed old vs. young salary discrepancies on the current technology worker shortage, coupled with younger workers' tendency to change jobs more frequently than their elders," according to the article's authors, Patricia Edmonds and Anna Braasch. "Those 55 and older most often cited the perception that management is less likely to promote older workers. Second on the list: the idea that older workers are trained in older, low-demand technologies that pay less."

Despite the possibility of discrimination, few tech workers feel compelled to hide their age. Only a quarter of those surveyed admitted they had ever "felt uncomfortable" letting a co-worker or manager know their age.

The study comes as the ranks of older workers mushrooms in the overall U.S. work force and in the technology sector in particular, once perceived as the haunts of dressed-to-distress Generation Xers and fresh-out-of-college roustabouts.

During the next decade, mature workers are poised to overwhelm the tech industry by their sheer numbers. According to American Demographics, seven baby boomers will turn 50 every minute in the United States from now until 2014.

Most are not planning an idle retirement. According to a survey by Scudder Investment Services, 53 percent of today's baby boomers see retirement as an opportunity to dabble in a new career--not check out of the work force entirely.

Still, technology companies are relatively youthful places, and it is not uncommon to find the average age of a particular company's work force to be under 30. Most of those surveyed felt that the terms "older" and "senior" denote a tech worker in the early to middle 40s. Only tech workers 65 and up were most likely to classify an "older" technology professional as someone between age 46 and 55.