Forever Young: What Does Tech’s Appetite for Perpetual Youth Mean for Millennials?

Forever Young: What Does Tech’s Appetite for Perpetual Youth Mean for Millennials?

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The Millennial generation’s leading edge is in their mid-30s, and may be thinking about the future post 40. That’s the year they will be protected by the federal Discrimination in Employment Act. Its intent is “to promote employment of older persons based on their ability rather than age.”

It’s hard to see how Silicon Valley will meet the law’s goal or legal requirements. The tech industry favors the young. It’s their business model.

Leading tech firms hire large numbers of Millennial-age workers. The median age range at Google, Facebook, SpaceX, LinkedIn, Amazon, Salesforce, Apple and Adobe, is 29 to 31, according to a study last year by PayScale, which analyzes self-reported data.

This is in contrast to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. It put the median age of software developers last year in all industries at 39.6 years.

Millennials, which date from the 1980s to mid-2000s, are the largest generation. But what will happen to this generation’s tech workers as they settle into middle age?

Will the median age of tech firms rise as the Millennial generation grows older?

Karen Panetta, the dean of graduate engineering education at Tufts University and the vice president of communications and public relations at the IEEE-USA, believes the outcome for tech will be Logan’s Run-like, where age sets a career limit. That was a 1976 movie about a society that limited lifespans to age 30.

Tech firms want people with the current skills sets and those “without those skills will be pressured to leave or see minimal career progression,” said Panetta.

Panetta said tech firms seek recent graduates. The people “with the hip skills, the latest technology and lower pay.”

Tech firms don’t disclose the median ages of their workers. Age is not part of their definition of diversity. They limit public data to sex and ethnicity. But what they do reveal doesn’t help them.

James Damore, a former software engineer at Google, wrote an internal memo about tech’s gender gap. It accused the firm of operating in an “ideological echo chamber” unable to have to an honest discussion about women in tech.

Google’s own data shows that 69 percent of its workforce is male. That’s in line with many other tech firms.

Damore’s argument for this gender gap is controversial and he was fired. In a subsequent essay in the Wall Street Journal, he wrote “that at least some of the male-female disparity in tech could be attributed to biological differences.” Damore also included hiring bias as a factor for the disparity.

But Damore, 28, didn’t probe the role age may have in this gender gap.

If tech firms have a bias against hiring older technical workers, are they restricting their potential to create a more diverse workforce?

This is an issue for Google, which is defending itself in an age discrimination case.

Cheryl Fillekes, a programmer whose academic accomplishments include a Ph.D. in geophysics from the University of Chicago, is part of an age discrimination lawsuit that was filed in 2015.

Fillikes was invited by Google for in-person interviews four different times between 2007 and 2013 but was rejected for a job. Her lawsuit alleges “intentional discrimination,” something Google denies.

This case has become a class action for engineering job applicants over the age of 40 who were denied employment at Google after an in-person interview. More than 260 have since joined the lawsuit.

The decision by tech firms to exclude age from a discussion on diversity keeps the issue in the background.

If the firms did publish their age data, David Kurtz, a labor relations partner at Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, said it would increase awareness about the issue. “The more of a focus you place on an issue the more attention it gets and the more likely that change can happen,” he said.

For tech firms, “it’s great to get the new hot shot who just graduated from college, but it’s also important to have somebody with 40 years of experience who has seen all of the changes in the industry and can offer a different perspective,” said Kurtz.

“Age is an important part of diversity,” said Lisa Marchiondo, an assistant professor at the Anderson School of Management at the University of New Mexico, and a researcher in this area.

“There’s ample research showing that greater diversity even with regard to age can lead to greater innovation and creativity in teams,” said Marchiondo.

Marchiondo’s research includes what happens to workers across industries. Both older, age 50 and above, and younger, age 30 and below, report the highest rates of age discrimination. A recent study looked at overt forms of discrimination, such as being denied a promotion, to more covert forms that might include exclusion from social activities with co-workers.

Marchiondo said discrimination against young workers may not be true for the tech industry, but for older workers generally there are “very persistent negative stereotypes.”

The idea that the tech industry may have an age bias is not scaring the new college grads away.

“They see retirement so far off, so they are more interested in how to move up or onto new startup ventures or even business school,” said Panetta. “The reality sets in when they have families and companies downsize and it’s not so easy to just pick up and go on to another company,” she said.

None of this may be a foregone conclusion. Millennials may see the experience of today’s older workers as a cautionary tale, and usher in cultural changes that include age as part of a diverse workforce.

Patrick Thibodeau is an award-winning news reporter focused on high-impact, traffic-driving, exclusive stories that connect with readers. For more than 20 years, he was senior editor at Computerworld, where he covered technology-related public policy issues, including offshore outsourcing, globalization, IT careers and workforce.

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