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Parental Guidance not wanted: The stubborn and grumpy few are causing age discrimination in technology

Parental Guidance not wanted: The stubborn and grumpy few are causing age discrimination in technology

As today's digital revolutionaries get older, they too, will confront the issues of ageing and hopefully adjust their perspective accordingly.

The older generation, too, must change and evolve accordingly or be left behind in the wake of this never ending technology tsunami.

Bradley de Souza

Whilst developing some ideas and concepts for a book about people involved in technology and transformation, I began thinking about age discrimination in the technology workplace.

There are many articles which list examples of bias, but none offer a real explanation. I began to wonder if people brought this upon themselves. Was there a deeper and more meaningful set of reasons which could tie all of this together instead of a general bias against older people?

Ageism is prevalent, largely ignored and widely accepted but researchers have a difficult task to quantify it. In an Economic Letter by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco from February 27, 2017, when studying age discrimination it says, “In general, economists find it challenging to establish evidence of labor market discrimination.”

The letter further details complex and abstract testing procedures to verify age discrimination. It concludes with what we already know, that age discrimination is rife.

The book Disrupted, by Dan Lyons, raised issues around culture, behaviour, and ageism, being the older guy in a technology startup.

The book’s publication caused a stir especially after the FBI got involved due to hacking by the company Dan was trying to expose.

Once the media furore died down, the conversations around ageism turned into whispers again. I began to question why and realised that there were some difficult, but possible explanations for the issue of age discrimination in the technology workplace.

Are people bringing this upon themselves? Are a few grumpy ones making it a problem for all? Is an explanation for age discrimination related to how some people behave as they get older?

Bradley de Souza

Get ready for the new age of retirement 50 or thereabouts...

I've frequently heard and read about people in technology being effectively retired at around 50, or even earlier in some countries. What is so significant about this age? One thing from Dan's book stood out, his appearance. He looked older than almost everyone at his new company. It marked him out as the old guy and set him apart from everyone else.

What is so bad about being 50 or thereabouts? I believe that people start to resemble their parents and more importantly, some behave like the parents they love to hate.

Parents are not often the best role models when it come to technology. Some need a lot of of help and persuasion getting onboard with the latest trends. If we couple this with parenting styles of ‘don’t do this, don’t do that, be careful, I told you so’, it doesn't go down well in the modern, social, ideas driven workplace. These attitudes restrict rather than enable or support the flow of possibilities. People wouldn't choose to work with others who behaved like this, let alone their parents. Is this one reason behind age discrimination in the technology workplace?

My own parents felt that the ‘computer’ was a passing fad and that my time would be better spent elsewhere. Even now, amongst people who work in technology, they shudder when asked how their parents feel about the work they do.

Is there a reason this problem is more pronounced in the technology workplace? Could this be due to the disconnect between parents of children who became interested in technology as a career?

Technology as a sector is still relatively young and not well understood by most. As a career choice, it's difficult for others to comprehend. It's much easier to explain and understand fields such as medicine, law, politics or teaching.

How often do parents of children in technology roles default to "s/he works with computers" or my personal favourite catch-all for the more trendy parent, "s/he works in I.T.".

I was a Head of Technology at the BBC for a while during the dotcom boom. It was a proud moment, a highlight of my career and the biggest technology job in Europe at the time. My parents simply told others that I worked at the BBC. People invariably assumed I was in Television.

Are people bringing this upon themselves? Are a few grumpy ones making it a problem for all? Is an explanation for age discrimination related to how some people behave as they get older?

As people age, there is a tendency to slow down, to stop learning, do less, become less active. What message does this then send to others in the workplace? When this tendency is also coupled with cynical behaviours and attitudes, it's no wonder all older people are tarred with the same brush.

Is there also a fear that as people age they will automatically become chastising, grumpy, slow employees? Hence the need to get rid of them before or in case it happens.

Ironically, some older and well established businesses behave in the same way. They can lack drive and innovation, only becoming active when threatened by competitors. For people working inside these organisations, this survival response is often too little too late.

The technology and processes in such places tend to be decrepit. Their fragility makes them vulnerable and worse still these days, open to criminal exploitation.

Thomas Edison failed more than 1000 times when trying to perfect the light bulb.

The hidden cost of age discrimination

Mark Zuckerberg once said "Young people are just smarter" but he didn't say that young people are wiser. Wisdom is the intersection between knowledge and experience, something which can only be acquired over time, even a short time.

Infosys, a large technology company, teaches clients that it roughly costs 10,000 times more to fix a defect in a finished product or service than it does to fix it at the requirements gathering stage. It emphasises getting things right from the outset. I believe that the multiple is even greater if you find the problems before, at the ideas stage. For that to happen, you need a combination of wisdom and experience.

Rats are tested in maze experiments to determine learning abilities. The rats who have been through more mazes, the experienced rats, complete new ones faster. In a similar vein, the motto of today's technology driven world is 'fail fast'. It's a concept from software engineering that has been applied to modern entrepreneurship. The idea is that each failure brings you closer to success faster.

Thomas Edison failed more than 1000 times when trying to perfect the light bulb. James Dyson's bagless vacuum cleaner took five years and over 5000 prototypes to perfect. Edison and Dyson gained learning and experience that is so much broader than it seems. Both inventors became savvy businesspeople, broadly applying their knowledge, experience and wisdom to other areas.  

Experience and wisdom come with age. There is a tipping point however, when mental faculties decline and agility passes. Are we truly saying that this happens at around 50 years of age?

I had the privilege of meeting Dan Lyons in 2008 when we were both speaking at a TED style conference. Dan's talk was one of the highlights. He clearly wasn't a tired, old, worn out guy. He was quick witted, exceedingly funny and incredibly knowledgeable.

Over the years we've sporadically kept in touch courtesy of social media and he's since become more prolific, more successful. Ironically, at the same conference, there was a talk from Aubrey de Grey about preventing and stopping ageing. Apart from the major medical challenges, he spoke about changes in society, retraining for second and third careers, being fully productive beyond 100 years of age. How ironic that our working lives are being cut short at a time of increasing lifespan and rising mandatory retirement ages.  

What future awaits today's Wunderkinds?

What future awaits the current crop of Wunderkinds?

In his late 50s, Bill Gates left technology to become the world's largest and arguably greatest philanthropist. He has applied his wisdom, experience and vast financial resources to now solving the world's most intractable problems, the ones that impact humanity the most.

His efforts have created significant benefits to the world and he's far from ‘past it’. Colonel Harland David Sanders , the man behind KFC, went through multiple careers before succeeding with the now famous chicken recipe. He only saw great wealth in his seventies. 

Will Keith Kellog, the founder of the famous cereal company, charted a similar story to Sanders. He founded the Kellogg company in his late 40s and like Bill Gates, became a philanthropist in later life.

Young and smarter doesn’t mean success

People today are not more intelligent than those entrepreneurs of 150 years ago, some might even argue that today we are less intelligent because of technology. In the past you needed time, patience, tenacity and luck to become successful.

Today, opportunities are easier in some respects because well executed good ideas can literally explode across the connected world in no time.

Our business leaders are younger because they are able to lead technology initiatives they themselves have created and made successful from a young age.

Read more: Leadership is demonstrated, not measured

However, in the technology startup world, failure is much more common than success. The startup world is littered with failures which seem glaringly obvious to those with more mature perspectives and longer memories. Well- funded projects, don't die immediately or ‘fail fast’. The funding enables them to make plenty of errors which, after careful review, could have been avoided with the benefit of more wisdom and experience.

The myth that it takes 10,000 hours to master any skill should be better stated that it takes 10,000 hours to make fewer mistakes. The broader the field of expertise, the longer it takes for experience to reduce the error rate. This is the very definition of quality, fewer and fewer errors. In the physical world, errors impact durability, safety, performance, usability. In the digital world, the impacts go further, also affecting scalability, availability and modularity.

Regardless of population demographics, the issues of age, gender and racial diversity are the same everywhere.

Enabling age discrimination

Whilst companies seem to remove older people with impunity, they also enable age discrimination at the hiring stage. When recruiting for junior level roles, those usually filled by younger people, the process is structured, objective and rigorous.

As the roles become more senior, the process becomes unstructured and more subjective. Individual hiring manager bias often goes unchecked and overall, the process is subject to less scrutiny.

The recruitment industry is also complicit in the same way. Recruitment consultants want to please their clients, those who ultimately pay the bills. Hiring managers can explicitly direct the recruitment industry in any direction they want. Given this, how else could such major diversity discrepancies occur?

Regardless of population demographics, the issues of age, gender and racial diversity are the same everywhere.

Conclusion and a glimmer of hope

For the sake of a few who confirm the stereotype, many older people are impacted. Consequently, older workers in the field of technology will continue to be forcibly retired early. Much needed wisdom and experience will be lost from the technology industry. This could signal to people that technology isn't a stable, long term profession, thereby exacerbating a skills shortage that already exists.

Young people are supposed to rebel against their parents, against authority figures, in that it’s in their job description, that’s what they do. This behaviour has led to the revolution of so many aspects of our lives.

As the current generation of digital revolutionaries gets older, it will confront the issues of ageing and hopefully adjust its perspective accordingly.

The older generation, too, must change and evolve accordingly or be left behind in the wake of this never ending technology tsunami.

Technology is a rapidly changing, exciting, limitless field of endeavour. Any ability acquired through experience to discern patterns or similarities against time could help avoid mistakes or more importantly, make good ideas great. It is an industry driven by constant change. The centuries-old saying is as pertinent today as ever, 'times change and we change with the times.’

Bradley de Souza (bradley@xtanz.com) is an internationally recognised CIO/CTO/COO who has specialised in changetransformation and recovery across industries around the world. 

Send news tips and comments to divina_paredes@idg.co.nz

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Tags leadershipfail faststartupsBradley de Souzamillennialsgeneration xageismdigital disruptioncareersilicon valleyDan Lyonsskills shortagebaby boomertechnology workersdisruption

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