Some New Perspectives on the Age Discrimination Issue in Tech

The national engineering accreditation agency requires that curricula provide students with some exposure to ethics.  My department decided to fulfill this requirement by teaching our own, in-house ethics course, and it’s my turn to teach it.  I’m taking the theme of ethical decisions the students may need to address as future engineers, engineering managers, tech entrepreneurs and so on.

As you can see from the course reading list, I’ve chosen age discrimination as one of the topics.  This generated an especially lively class discussion, including on a couple of points that I believe are new to the tech age discrimination debate, which I will bring up here.

A few weeks ago, I reported on STEM shortage skeptic Michael Teitelbaum’s visit to Davis, including a visit to my ethics course.  Among other things, the students were startled to hear from Michael that Microsoft automatically rejects half of its job applicants by computer algorithm, unseen by human eyes.  I believe it’s a safe bet that a major portion of those rejected in this way are older, which as many readers will recall I define as being over age 35.

One of my course’s reading items, from a 2011 Computerworld series, is titled, “Recession Hit Older Tech Workers Harder, Labor Data Shows,” concisely summarizing the data compiled by the Computerworld reporters.  One quick point to make on this is that it counters a commonly heard assertion, that “Yes, there is age discrimination in tech, but hey, that’s a problem in any profession.”  No, it IS worse in tech, specifically in the computer fields, which I’ve shown before have careers are much shorter than in say, civil engineering.

But the content of  another reading item, a 2012 AP article, was especially interesting in our class discussion.  Specifically, the students were intrigued by the claims, both in research studies and in perceptions by some, that older engineers are less innovative.  This can’t be the case for all older engineers, the students argued, and thus automatic rejection of older applicants is unfair and can amount to lost opportunities for employers.

We then discussed a remarkable point that to my knowledge has never been raised in discussion of the age issue:  What if the AP article, instead of quoting and making assertions that older workers are less innovative, had discussed similar assertions for specific racial or cultural groups?  There would have been an uproar!  Or actually, the AP would simply not run such a piece in the first place.

In other words, why is age fair game but not race?  A case could be made that on average, East Asians are less innovative — there is research along these lines, and all East Asian governments have tried to remedy the problem — but no AP article would defend the blanket rejection by employers of East Asian applicants.  Not only would this be counter to American racial sensitivity (including my own), but also it would — just as my students pointed out in the case of age discrimination — result in missed opportunities for employers.  Whatever the average level of innovation among East Asians is, there are many who are quite talented in that regard.

So, why does the industry get a free pass on age by the press?  As I do in various other matters, I attribute this to the slick job the industry PR experts have done in mesmerizing the press into giving credence to the Youth Culture notion in tech.

Which brings me to the other remarkable issue that arose in that class discussion on age.  I mentioned that the standard line given by the industry for not hiring older engineers is that the latter don’t have the up-to-date skill sets that the employers need.  I cited a New York Times article, for instance, that claimed a shortage of Python programmers (even among the young).

Well, my students were outraged that employers would reject an otherwise high-quality applicant simply because he/she didn’t have experience with Python.  A typical student comment was, “Python is such a simple language, something you can pick up really quickly.  What’s the big deal?”

The reality, of course, is that employers are willing to hire YOUNG applicants who lack Python background, whereas the older ones will be ignored unless they have actual work experience (not just coursework or self study) in the language.  Python etc. are largely just pretexts for rejecting the older workers.  But the fact is that my students, all of them Computer Science majors who have learned a number of programming languages, were shocked that employers would screen so stringently on such things (or at least claim to do so).  And their shock is even more profound because most CS programs tell their students, in the words of a department that prominently echoes the industry claim of a labor shortage, “The department will prepare you well to adapt to the new technologies, tools and methodologies…”, i.e. that older engineers who stay current won’t have trouble finding work.

The sad truth is that the industry knows that “Python programmer shortage” claims sell.   Journalists tend to be easy prey in this regard, since, as one NPR reporter told me only half jokingly “We’re innumerate and proud.”  If they are told that prior background in Python is crucial, who are they to question it?  And the industry has been so effective in shopping around this celebration of “innovation” — President Obama uses the word often in his speeches — that reporters can give credence to industry claims that age discrimination is justified on innovation grounds.

The press would do well to consider a statement by one of my students:  “Do all the engineers in a company need to be innovative?  You maybe want a few who might come up with ideas, but you need a whole lot of engineers to implement those ideas.”  Well put.

Maybe the press should interview a few CS students for these articles.

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10 thoughts on “Some New Perspectives on the Age Discrimination Issue in Tech

  1. There is certainly some age discrimination in STEM jobs, and it gets awkward when a STEM worker applies for a job with younger team members and younger managers, and the decline in salaries and working conditions over the last thirty years tends to make older applicants seem out of step with things, but I can track the last ten to twenty years of careers of at least ten CS and IT workers (including myself) who are now nearing or past the age of 60, and most are roughly as employed and employable now as they were twenty years ago, and arguably as they ever were.

    Now at best that is disappointing as not only increased experience is not valued but proven expertise is not valued either, as should disappoint much younger workers, STEM has become “commoditized” to a really appalling degree but perhaps it was never perfect. So I end up putting a different spin on things and prioritize the commoditization as a more important problem, if expertise were more recognized and rewarded then age discrimination might well be more against the young! As, actually, is often the case these days outside of STEM more than inside, but often mediocre new graduates even in STEM have a hard time getting a first job. So the field certainly has its perversities and these certainly result in age discrimination, but it may not be quite just as direct as all that.

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    • I often mention that the issue of age is somewhat less of a problem for independent contractors, and in fact knew one who was doing well even in his 70s. Sadly, though, contracting is not for everyone (one needs to be a sharp businessperson, have a good network etc.), I know others in their 40s and 50s who simply can’t buy a regular job, in spite of being highly qualified in both technical skill and character.

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      • FWIW, 9 of the 10 are and have always been “full-time” employees – nobody says “permanent” anymore – I’m the only one who has done mostly – any, really, not counting moonlight – contracting.

        Actually I’m trying to remember all 10 of the names I was counting yesterday, can’t recall the last three … there’s age for you! Might have to throw in one or two more occassional consultants after all.

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  2. I recently attended the now famous (or infamous, if you’re a Microsoft CEO!) Grace Hopper Conference. It was in the city where I live, and I had been a member of its online group for DECADES, so I went. I’m 57 and gainfully employed (and oh yes, I’ve actually programmed in Python!) but decided to spruce up my resume and see what would happen, as well as visit the job fair. I noticed on the conference app about a week before that many persons were claiming to have interviews all lined up. The most I got was a generic invite from 1 semiconductor company and something similar from a huge national insurer. Then I went to the job fair. Keep in mind that there were hundreds of employers all CLAMORING to hire women in STEM. As I approached each booth, I was literally overlooked by the interviewers. As far as they were concerned, I was cosplaying as the Invisible Woman. Another woman my age said that when she reached for one company’s SWAG, they informed her it was only for applicants. If I had been in need of employment, I would have been crushed. During a panel for ‘male allies’, Alan Eustace, the Google VP who just jumped from the stratosphere, mentioned something about it being difficult to justify hiring experienced persons. Ironically, we’re the same age. How does he justify hiring himself?

    BTW it could have been a double whammy as these same companies all like to brag about how they hire veterans. I’m a former USAF officer.

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  3. I have to challenge that last student regarding the need for “innovation”.

    Nearly all software developers need to innovate. If you are unable to innovate you would be able to do very little programming, very little problem-solving, wouldn’t be able to do so much as copy and paste sample code into anyting usable. Non-innovation might work for IT/data processing jobs more of the time, or for a bodyshop (domestic or across borders) where they do very nearly the same job at client after client after client, with only a very few “senior” people handling the significant variations.

    Re: ethics, the conundra of seemingly conflicting ethical principles would seem most in order for such a class… and sometimes I get the impression that no one in Sili Valley or Seattle or along Route 128 or Austin has ever gotten a good intellectual grip on the concept of respect for privacy. It is always with the assumption of a huge amount of privacy violation and with wide and foggy limits that they even mention it.

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    • Programming is by nature a creative activity (contrary to popular opinion in DC). But the student meant “innovation” in the blockbuster sense of, “Hey, let’s write an app to search the Web.”

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  4. The flip side is what experience brings, the ability to see 3 months, 6 months, 6 years down the road. When you’re 1 year out of college, you don’t have that knowledge base.

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  5. Age, in contrast to race, bastardy, and to a reduced degree, gender, is not under US law a suspect classification, entitled to strict scrutiny: it’s rather entitled only to normal scrutiny, which is to say that discrimination is allowed as long as it’s not arbitrary, i,e., is rationally related to a legitimate purpose.

    Claiming that you have a record of having adapted to new tools, methods, and technologies in an interview is likely to be held against you—as discrediting, showing a lack of understanding of what constitutes a real skill and hence that you may not have any, and a tendency to overrate yourself or casually excuse personal deficiencies. HANDS-ON experience only is what counts.

    I’ve known managers to complain bitterly that university curricula waste enormous amounts of time teaching `useless’ fundamentals such as computer architecture, rather than narrow, concrete skills such as specific machine languages.

    Similarly for innovation: although there certainly is innovation in industry, proven innovators are often in practice regarded as disruptive trouble makers in the workplace: hired sparingly by exceptional managers, but eschewed as a matter of course by most others.

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