Ageism remains a problem in tech, but it’s particularly pervasive within the startup community, where 37 percent of founders believe that investors display some kind of age bias (according to a 2018 survey by First Round Capital). According to that data, the majority of founders think that ageism kicks off against tech professionals once they pass the age of 36.
The idea that investors encourage ageism within startups has endured for years. “If these guys came to believe that it was in their own self-interest to hire more older workers—if they thought they would make more money with older workers—they would,” Dan Lyons, who tackled ageism in his bestselling book “Disrupted,” told Dice back in 2016. “But I think they’ve just decided they can make more money with young kids.”
Indeed, startups often lack the HR infrastructure designed to prevent ageism and other kinds of discrimination—it isn’t until companies grow to hundreds of people that they often integrate substantial HR departments. Ten tech pros in a rented office, desperately trying to launch an app before the last of the seed money runs out, might not think they have time for niceties (a view that’s quickly rectified when lawsuits hit).
It doesn’t help that many prominent people in tech engage in what could only be described as ageist rhetoric. For example, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is famous for once suggesting that “young people are just smarter” (one wonders if he holds that same opinion now that he’s 34). That creates a culture that promotes youth over all, especially if the youth in question doesn’t have a family and is willing to work 80 hours a week.
Of course, the issue isn’t restricted to startups with no HR infrastructure. In the First Round Capital survey, some 88.7 percent of those founders also thought that older people faced discrimination in the broader tech industry. And over the past several years, mature tech giants such as Intel and IBM have faced age-discrimination lawsuits. For example, a much-circulated 2018 report by ProPublica and Mother Jones accused IBM of eliminating more than 20,000 jobs held by American employees aged 40 and over, or “about 60 percent of its estimated total U.S. job cuts.”
Given this state of affairs, what’s an older tech pro to do? While it’s impossible to mitigate all the effects of ageism, you can boost your chances of landing your next job by emphasizing your management skills, relying on your network, and adjusting your application materials to emphasize your knowledge. The tech industry’s increased emphasis on employees’ work-life balance may end up helping older workers in the long run, as well, by making hiring managers and CEOs more inclined to hire those with skills, not just those willing to work insane hours.