|FROM ||Ruben Safir
|SUBJECT ||Subject: [NYLXS - HANGOUT] don't grow old - age discrimination in tech
The Tech Industry’s Darkest Secret: It’s All About Age
They don’t prepare you for this in college or admit it in job
interviews. The harsh reality is that if you are middle-aged, write
computer code for a living, and earn a six-figure salary, you’re
headed for the unemployment lines. Your market value declines as you age
and it becomes harder and harder to get a job.
I know this post will provoke anger, outrage, and denial. But, sadly,
this is the way things are in the tech world. It’s an “up or
out” profession — like the military. And it’s as competitive
as professional sports. Engineers need to be prepared.
This is not openly discussed, because employers could be accused of age
discrimination. But research, such as that completed by University of
California, Berkeley, professors Clair Brown and Greg Linden shows that
even those with masters degrees and Ph.Ds have reason to worry.
Brown and Linden’s analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics and Census
data for the semiconductor industry revealed that although salaries
increased dramatically for engineers in their 30s, these increases
slowed after the age of 40. After 50, the mean salary fell by 17% for
those with bachelors degrees and by 14% for those with masters degrees
and Ph.Ds. And salary increases for holders of postgraduate degrees were
always lower than for those with bachelor’s degrees (in other words,
even Ph.D degrees didn’t provide long-term job protection).
It’s the same in the software industry. Prominent Silicon Valley
investors often talk about youth being an advantage in entrepreneurship.
If you look at their investment portfolios, all you see are engineers
who are hardly old enough to shave. They rarely invest in people who are
It may be wrong, but look at this from the point of view of the
employer. Why would any company pay a computer programmer with
out-of-date skills a salary of say $150,000, when it can hire a fresh
graduate — who has no skills — for around $60,000? Even if it
spends a month training the younger worker, the company is still far
ahead. The young understand new technologies better than the old do, and
are like a clean slate: They will rapidly learn the latest coding
methods and techniques, and they don’t carry any “technology
baggage.” The older worker likely has a family and needs to leave
the office by 6 p.m. The young can easily pull all-nighters.
What the tech industry often forgets is that with age comes wisdom.
Older workers are usually better at following direction, mentoring, and
leading. They tend to be more pragmatic and loyal, and to know the
importance of being team players. And ego and arrogance usually fade
During my tech days, I hired several programmers who were over 50. They
were the steadiest performers and stayed with me through the most
It can be difficult for some companies to justify paying the age
premium. For tech startups in particular, it always boils down to cost:
Most can’t even afford to pay $60,000 salaries, so they look for
motivated, young software developers who will accept minimum wage in
return for equity ownership and the opportunity to build their careers.
We can blame the employer, but in a free economy you can’t really
force any company to hire workers who have the wrong skills or to pay
higher salaries. Larger companies develop products for global markets
and have global workforces. They will hire where they can get the best
skill for the best price.
So, whether we like it or not, it’s a tough industry, and the onus
is on employees to keep themselves marketable. I know that many people
will take offense at what I have to say, but here is my advice to those
whose hair is beginning to grey.
Move up the ladder into management, architecture, or design, and
diversify your experience. Work with business executives in your
company, in areas such as sales, finance, marketing/product management,
legal, and operations. Develop a broader set of skills that make you
more valuable to your employer and that differentiate you from others
with just coding skills.
Become an entrepreneur. Despite what some investors say, older age
is an advantage in the startup world. You know more about industries and
markets, and have ideas for products that the world actually needs and a
better ability to motivate and manage than a kid out of school does.
Keep your skills current. This means keeping up to date with the
latest trends in computing, programming techniques, and languages, and
adapting to change. To be writing code for a living when you’re 50,
you will need to be a rock-star developer and be able to out-code the
new kids on the block. Top developers are always in demand and companies
will readily pay top dollars for them.
If you’re going to stay in programming, realize that the deck is
stacked against you. Even though you may be highly experienced and wise,
employers aren’t willing or able to pay an experienced worker twice
or thrice what an entry-level worker earns. Save as much as you can when
you’re in your 30s and 40s, and be prepared to earn less as you gain
Finally, I don’t know of any university, including the ones I teach
at, that tells its engineering students what to expect in the long term
or how to manage their technical careers. Perhaps it is time to let
students know what lies ahead and prepare them for their difficult
You can read more about my work on Wadhwa.com and follow me on Twitter:
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