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Digital dauphins: Youth vs. age in tech

Digital dauphins: Youth and age in tech
You first met our " IT Napoleon" -- based by artist Olafur Petursson on Ingres' painting of the emperor -- last month in "Crowning careers: IT workers still rule." Now, our IT Nap-ster shoves aside all elders: A new survey reveals age bias in the tech empire  

In this story:

Gang way

Open your eyes


(CNN) -- "Age bias is a lot more common in the technology industry than even I would have supposed. And I've been in the tech industry for quite awhile."

Cynthia Morgan sounds as if she's been keeping up with the adventures of our own red-caped "IT Napoleon." She's the vice president for content and executive producer of, an online community and job-search center for careerists and employers in tech businesses.

graphic Your turn. Find your age group below, and tell us whether you think younger people are better-treated in tech careers than older people.

30 or younger. Yes, younger people get better treatment.
30 or younger. No, older people are treated just as well.
31 to 45. Yes, younger people get a better shake.
31 to 45. No, older people do as well as younger ones.
45 and older. Yes, younger people are treated better.
45 and older. No, older workers do just fine in tech.
View Results


"The industry has an image of the 16-year-old nerd who comes in and runs everything. All the commercials you see on television -- some young guy telling the boss what he should be doing online. It's an industry that really is branded for the young."

What may be discovering about the tech career scene is that if youth isn't wasted on the young, the experience and capability of age may be being squandered by IT employers.

In a survey the results of which have just been released on its site, questioned 1,027 participants, asking them if they'd experienced workplace setbacks -- layoffs, being passed over for promotions, missing out on bonuses, and so on. At the survey's core were questions about whether the respondents thought their ages had been a factor in whatever incident they'd encountered.

Overall, 40 percent of the respondents said they think age discrimination isn't a significant or widespread problem in the tech professions. Another 40 percent disagreed with that.

But, as reported by's Patricia Edmonds and Anna Braasch, techies younger than 35 were more than twice as likely as their over-45 cohorts to dismiss the age issue as insignificant.

"Even more than the numbers," says Morgan, "what surprised me were the stories we were getting back. The 'voices' part we put up on the site -- I didn't really find a lot of hysterical bitterness. Instead, there was some very cogent, 'I've tested this theory and, sure enough, in my department if you get to a certain age, you get laid off.' Or 'You get shunted aside and it really doesn't matter how good you are.'

"Even though [they're] equally trained, younger workers are perceived as 'natural techies' because they 'grew up with the stuff,' as opposed to older workers changing careers who have had to 'learn it.'"
— Customer service/relations professional survey respondent, age 45-54

"There was a lot of talk about how important it is to be youthful-looking. You could be 90 but as long as you look young, you're fine. That kind of thing is very disappointing."


Gang way

Here are a few specifics obtained from the survey data.

•   The survey asked, "If age discrimination does exist, exactly who's being discriminated against?" Almost 75 percent of surveyed techies 18 to 34 -- and more than 60 percent of those 35 to 44 -- said discrimination can go either way equally, younger workers against older or older workers against younger. When the question was put to older workers, more than half of them, 45 to 64, said there's no such thing as equal-opportunity discrimination: If it happens, it's going to be younger IT workers discriminating against older ones.

Headline will go here pls change in title bar as well

•   When asked for what age boss they'd rather work, the majority of younger respondents, ages 18 through 34, chose "a supervisor/manager older than myself." The majority of older workers, 25 through 64, said they had no preference about supervisor age.

All responding techies, younger or older, said they had "no preference" about age in terms of tech professionals working for them.

•   The survey asked respondents whether age is a reason for a wage gap. "Some recent studies," write Edmonds and Braasch in their report, "suggest that older technology professionals on average earn less than younger counterparts with equivalent experience. In this survey, however, younger techies (18-24) were six times as likely as those 45-54 to contend that older workers almost always make more money than younger workers.

"When asked why older tech professionals might make less than their younger, similarly qualified counterparts, one generation suggested dramatically different reasons for a wage gap. Younger techies taking the survey most often blamed old-vs.-young salary discrepancies on the current technology worker shortage, coupled with younger workers' tendency to change jobs more frequently than their elders."

Older techies, 55 and up, "most often cited the perception that management is less likely to promote older workers," write Edmonds and Braasch. "Second on the list: the idea that older workers are trained in older, low-demand technologies that pay less."


Open your eyes

"We supposedly have more of a democracy going on" in the tech world, says Morgan.

"Particularly in corporate technology. It's grown up. These things and the Internet are running many aspects of our businesses today. So it should be whoever has the savvy, the oomph, whoever has the knowledge to get the job done in a businesslike fashion -- those are the people you'd think are being taken the most seriously. But these numbers tend to suggest that there really is a bias toward youth."

"At my previous job, I was laid off before anyone else because I was young enough to easily find another job. To me this is discrimination, but in the state of Indiana, it is not unless you are over the age of 40."
— Help desk/support specialist, age 18-24

Morgan says she finds more cautionary messages in the survey data than gloom and doom.

"Some of the younger people are thinking they should jump over the cliff at age 40. We picked up a lot of frustration from people who are under 25 who say, 'Look, I can do this, I know what I'm doing,' but they're seen as too young. We also heard from women, good-looking women, who said, 'I have to really work to overcome the image of the dumb blonde. Every new person who comes in, I have to fight the battle all over again.'

Author's name

"It comes down to being between 30 and 35. You're fine. No problem. Younger than that, you have to work hard to convince people you can do things. Older than that you're going to have to work hard to convince people that as an old dog you can learn new tricks.

"But what you really need to know is that in the tech professions, you'll always have to learn new things. Right now, new technologies come out every six months.

"If you buy into a technology career, you have to understand what you're getting yourself into. Just because you've spent a lot of time learning one thing this year doesn't mean you won't have to learn a different thing next year.

"You've also got to learn to change the way you work. You might not be with a company two years. And it might be because you leave or it might be because the company goes away. You find out when you're going through all this that you have to develop yourself professionally.

"You don't worry about loyalty to the company. You worry about developing yourself so you're valuable to the widest range of companies. You might be with General Motors this week and you're a proud member of Coca-Cola the next month."

But wherever you land -- and however long a time you stay there -- Morgan sees an over-arching and practical comment in the results of her site's survey.

"I think the message is that if this is a problem for somebody else in your organization" -- if you see an older worker suffering age discrimination where you work -- "then get out of the company.

"Because it's going to be a problem for you before long."

"I think this tech worker age issue could become a much larger issue if a slowing economy results in less demand for tech workers. I fear it could get ugly."
— Systems administrator, age 45-54, 10 or more years of experience



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