Does technology discriminate against the old?

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Age Discrimination In Technology? Opinions Vary

Posted 10/07/2013 04:51 PM ET

Being old enough to know better might not do much for your resume in Silicon Valley, where there’s a school of thought that many employers lean toward the young.
The median age of Facebook (FB) employees is 28, according to job information site At Google (GOOG), it’s 29, and at Apple (AAPL), 32.

But age discrimination in tech occupations is hard to determine, says Marshall Oldham, recruiting director for Hanover, Md.-based information technology services firm TEKsystems.
“I’m confident that it’s a real thing,” Oldham, 39, said, “but this is just a very difficult industry to assess when it comes to age discrimination because of how fast technology changes.”
What some would call discrimination, others describe as a need for the latest and greatest skills, Oldham says.

“It’s not so much a company saying ‘We don’t want to hire an older person’ as it is a company saying ‘we want to hire someone who has today’s skills,'” Oldham said.

Survival Of The Fittest

Tech sectors move fast, especially in areas such as social media and Big Data, he says.
“It’s a survival-of-the-fittest industry,” Oldham said.
Younger tech workers use technology differently, says Patrick Egan, Silicon Valley chapter president of the nonprofit Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. The association works to advance and promote drone and robotic technologies.

Younger workers often look down on those who want “everything on paper” and would rather leave voicemails than text, says Egan, 47, who also consults for the U.S. Army on tech issues.
“I definitely think there’s some contempt and arrogance,” said Egan, who says he’s been on the receiving end of that.

But he says this arrogance might be more general attitude than deliberate discrimination.
There are cases where age discrimination is more clear-cut, at least to juries. In August, a Texas appellate court upheld a $900,000 age discrimination verdict against Dell (DELL) involving a former sales representative, age 61.

Federal law prohibits discrimination against those 40 or older. In some states, similar laws apply to younger workers.
Awareness of age discrimination in technology is generally on the rise, says San Francisco attorney Janette Wipper of law firm Sanford Heisler.
The Washington, D.C.-based firm represents plaintiffs in employment law cases. A quarter of its work is against tech firms, says Wipper.
Age discrimination awareness would have happened sooner except that most cases are resolved in confidential arbitration, she says.

Being over 40 means not being up-to-speed in the minds of some employers, Wipper, 40, says.
“There’s age-based stereotyping where many employees over 40 are perceived to have dated technology skills,” she said.
That perception can have serious consequences for older workers.

“It’s a barrier that impacts their employment opportunities,” Wipper said. “When it’s time to cut people, the (older ones) tend to be first.”
In fact, Wipper contends that “a typical tech employee is aware that once they turn 40, they’ll soon be subject to these stereotypes, unless they’re the CEO, CTO or CIO.”
The issue should be addressed, she says.

“Tech companies shouldn’t wait for lawsuits and arbitration to create a diverse workforce that includes older employees,” Wipper said.
Companies can take steps to avoid age discrimination, says attorney Mark Spring of Irvine, Calif.-based law firm Carothers DiSante & Freudenberger.
The firm represents tech companies and other employers in labor-related cases.

Most age discrimination cases Spring sees involve men age 40-55 who are laid off in company reorganizations. Some are engineers. Many are in mid-management, supervising engineers or programmers.
The size of the companies sued is across the board, Spring says. Some, such as video game or app makers, generally have younger workforces. Others, such as hardware companies, tend to have more older employees, he says.
Potential Legal Target

Any company is a potential legal target when an older individual is let go or doesn’t get hired, Spring, 47, says.
It’s important to make sure management understands the value of older workers, Spring says. Tech companies have many business-to-business relationships, and diversity makes good business sense, he says.

“The folks on the other side of those relationships are not going to all be white males between the ages of 22 and 35,” Spring said. “Get older people in the applicant pool. It starts there.”
If older potential employees aren’t in the pool of applicants being considered, then it can look as if a company is intentionally discriminating when it’s not, Spring says.
One way to find more older job-seekers, he says, seems to contradict today’s trends.
“Don’t do all your recruiting on social networking,” Spring said, “because you’re narrowing your applicant pool.”
Age discrimination is not an issue, says Todd Thibodeaux, a tech industry spokesman.
“I have never seen it,” said Thibodeaux, 48.

Thibodeaux is president of the Chicago-based Computing Technology Industry Association, which has 2,200 corporate members worldwide.
“Tech is one of the most competitive industries in the world,” he said, “and the people with the best ideas still win.”