Is the Tech Industry Age Biased?

board roomIs it harder to find a job in the technology industry if you have a few more years on you than most of the owners of the company you’re applying for? Silicon Valley is a strange place where youth is considered more of an advantage than experience in many circles. With CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg and a history of successful young entrepreneurs including Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, it’s hard not to imagine that age has some hand in the hiring process at many of the youngest companies in the valley.

I’m not referring to finding a job in IT at an established company. Instead, the question seems more relevant to the current hiring process at some of the hottest tech startups out there. Would you find it more difficult to land a job at a startup if you were 50 or 60 as opposed to 20?

With my 30th birthday looming on the horizon just two days away from the time I’m penning this article, the issue hits home pretty hard. Just ten years ago I was the 20-year-old having a difficult time finding a job doing more than customer service or overnight security. Today, I’m 30 and by many standards I’m past my prime and unlikely to build a successful business in the tech industry. In many of the meetings I have with startups in my work, I often find that even at the age of 29, I’m usually one of the oldest people at the table.

NBC News recently ran a story outlining the experiences of Randy Adams, a 60-year-old with an impressive portfolio and every bit as much experience running companies as anyone that age could hope for. He found himself failing to land jobs he was more than qualified for. The candidates that did receive the offers were often much younger and less experienced than he was.

He decided to take on this issue by shaving his grey hair, changing his wardrobe to match that of his competition (many of which are in their 20s), and getting some minor plastic surgery. The result: he landed a job very quickly.

Now, age discrimination in the hiring process is illegal, but proving that it’s happening is very difficult. Unless an interviewer tells you that they’re looking for someone younger than you are, you really don’t have a case. It might even happen subconsciously, which is hard for anyone (even the perpetrator) to accept or understand as it happens.

The Problem Might Not Exist Just Within the Company, but the Recruiting Process in General

I’ve been responsible for hiring for small business IT in the past. A lot of the interviewing process is attempting to determine a person’s fit within a company. Especially in a small business, you want someone who is able to adapt to change quickly and not attempt to pull the experience or seniority card during disagreements. Subconsciously, this translated into a desire to find someone who we felt best matched the current members of our team. Our team was comprised largely of people in their 20s and early 30s. Oddly enough, we didn’t have a single application sent to us by the staffing agency that didn’t fit that profile.

That isn’t to say there weren’t any viable candidates searching for jobs in their 40s or 50s, but it was clear that the staffing agency only sent us resumes from people they had vetted and felt would be a good fit for our particular business.

In an industry where small businesses are led by younger individuals, the people they’re more likely to hire will be the ones they feel more comfortable around. This, sadly, translates to age discrimination on some level.

Just Look at the Terms Used to Describe Members of a Startup

You don’t need to look far to find signs of age discrimination in the tech world. Startups especially tend to seek out an individual to fulfill the role of “adult supervision” within a company. This individual would generally be intentionally older and more experienced than the rest of the core team. Their role within a company is to keep it focused and based in reality.

Outlandish projections and unwise expenditures are commonplace among younger businesses, and it’s this individual’s task to reel it in and add stability to the process. This is often done at a consultant level rather than as part of the actual business, though this individual may be given a role such as CTO or CFO due in part to their knowledge and experience.

Unfortunately, the adult supervision in a company is rarely the CEO. The CEO is the young visionary that provided the initial drive and/or funding to get the ball rolling. It isn’t until a company has been established and becomes a bit more aged that a publicly controlled board is a bit less closed-minded to the idea of a more mature CEO.

With an industry being dominated by stories of entrepreneurs starting companies in their very early 20s, it’s easy to see where a perception that youth trumps experience might come into play. The question is, are we feeding into that perception with our own actions?

What do you think? If you owned or managed a tech startup in the heart of silicon valley, would you find yourself seeing youth as an advantage for a candidate? Does age really make a difference in how effective an individual is at working with a team in the tech industry?

Photo: Tyler Merbler

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