Should Tech Workers Worry About Age Discrimination?

by Tom Koulopoulos

43 Percent of Boomer Tech Employees Are Worried About Losing Their Jobs. Here’s Why They Shouldn’t Be

The workforce is changing in ways that are much more complex than the generational stereotypes we’ve bought into.

Is There Age Discrimination in Tech Companies?

There’s nothing new about the fear of diminishing employment options as we age. But what is new is the antidote.

Just published research of 1,011 professionals from Indeed.com, a popular job posting a search site, revealed some pretty interesting, but not necessarily surprising, findings about the make up and attitudes of the tech workforce. The study looked at US tech workers with an average of 15 years and 9 months of experience working in the technology industry.

Perhaps the most striking statistic in the report is that 43% of tech workers fear losing their job due to age. While the study results seem to be a bit obscure regarding precisely which age range the 43% fall into, it was the perception around age diversity that I found especially interesting. According to Indeed, “close to half of employees (46%) are Millennials. And yet, only 23% of survey respondents think that this demographic is overrepresented at their workplaces. By contrast, under a fifth (18%) respondents feel that Baby Boomer (1946-65) generation is underrepresented at their company.”

Of course, it could well be that the 23% of respondents who thought there were too many millennials and the 18% who thought that there weren’t enough boomers were all boomers!

While the Indeed report has many insights, which I strongly encourage you to delve into, it also points to one of the most disturbing trends across all industries, but especially prevalent in tech–the utter abandon with which we buy into and perpetuate the value proposition of generational stereotypes.

I know, I know, you want to reach out and shake me because generational differences are very, very real; in fact, just as real as our gender, the color of our skin, our race, religious beliefs, sexual orientation…you see where I’m going with this, right? You would never think to discriminate based on any of those categories but most of us don’t bat an eye at using generational categories to label people. Whether you’re a boomer or a millennia you’ve been both the subject and the source of this sort of discriminatory ageism.

I’ve got one piece of advice for you, JUST STOP IT! What we are heading into is not a multigenerational work force but what I prefer to think of as a post-generational workforce.

The Post-Generational Workforce

Here are the facts.

According to the US Dept. of Labor the 2016 breakdown of the workforce for the three age bands of 16-24 (Gen Z), 25-54 (Millennials and Gen X), and 55+ (Boomers) is 12%, 65%, 23% respectively. In tech the relative percentages are 7%, 73%, and 20% (although trying to get at n exact number given the way the DoL categorizes employment is subject to some interpretation).

In other words, there’s a negligible difference between the demographics of overall employment and tech. Those numbers seem to make sense. After all, you’d expect the majority of the workforce to be in that 25-54 age range. But that expectation is exactly what’s changing.

While we hear endless talk about how millennials and Gen Z will make up the majority of the workforce by 2020 what we fail to keep in mind is that the number of people in the 65+ age group will double between now and 2060! This while every other age group remains fairly stable. That means we will have almost exactly the same number of people in the 25-44, 45-64, and 65+ age groups.

Say what you want about attitudes and perceptions, but the truth remains that the workforce we need to start thinking of and preparing for is radically different than the one we’ve grown up with or are experiencing today.

So, here’s my advice on how to start doing that:

1) Stop thinking in terms of Generations, that so Old School

During the entirety of the industrial age the workforce has been neatly segmented into three broad generational categories, those who were deciding on and training for their career (college or trade school students, apprentices, interns), those in their career, and those past their career (retired). These demographic delineations make no sense going forward.

My son started his first business at 14. I have no intention of retiring from what I love to do. I fully expect that you’ll have to pry my cold dead fingers off of the keyboard and the microphone. In between those two extremes there may be 5-7 generational cohorts. But does it matter? The Indeed report reinforces how rigidly we hold onto this greatest of all 20th Century mythologies, the generation gap. The “gap” is an absurd artifact of a time when different age cohorts used different tools to work and communicate. And a time when the only form of capital with which to exert influence was paid for. Today we are all using the same technologies to connect and communicate and even a 10-year-old can wield the influence of millions of followers. As long as we perpetuate the notion of a generation gap we are driving wedges into our organizations rather than leveraging this rich and diverse set of skills and experiences.

2) Stop thinking in terms of retirement.

More and more of the 65+ age group, which was once considered at retirement age, is continuing to work. In fact, if you were to project life expectancy and work-life expectancy for the rest of the millennium you’d find that in 2100 the two lines interest, in other words we’ll never stop working (or, if you continue the trend lines past 2100 we’ll be working after we’re dead).

This means that whatever we’ve come to know about multi-generational workforces and their challenges, we’ve seen nothing yet. As I talk to audiences around the world I always ask how many people expect to fully retire (at any age) and disconnect from the process of adding and receiving value based on their accumulated knowledge. Less than 10% of hands go up. You can put whatever label you want on that but it doesn’t alter the fact that the way we look at work and its role in our lives is changing radically as is the makeup of tomorrow’s workforce. Start preparing for that. If you’re 50 or older think seriously about what your Third Act is going to look like and prepare a plan for it. Brand yourself, build a website that showcases and does your experience justice, learn how to run a sole proprietorship, start writing that book, look at investing part (even a small part) of your “retirement” into new ventures, start teaching, or do all of the above. You’re likely to be here for a very long time. If you’re 55 you have another 26 years ahead. Expect that number to grow at an accelerated rate. So, you may well be here reading my 2,101st inc.com column. It will be titled, : I Told You So.”

3) Stop associating creativity (or the lack of it) with age.

I’ve spent the better part of my life working with brilliant people across all age groups. For 12 years I coached K-12 teams on creative problem solving. Over the past 30 years I’ve worked with hundreds of startups and entrepreneurs of all ages. I’ve taught innovation to undergrad and graduate students at three universities. And I’ve worked with nearly half of the Fortune 500 and countless smaller companies on innovation efforts. Want to know what all of that has taught me about creativity? That no generation has a monopoly on it. Sure, the younger you are the fewer obstacles you’ve encountered and the greater your enthusiasm for the absurdly crazy ideas that will change the world. But the older you are the greater your capacity to deconstruct a problem and prioritize a strategy to solve it. In my experience, the teams and organizations which are best able to turn creativity into value are those that work across all demographic categories.

4) Get a Reverse Mentor

In a 2015 Inc.com article I talked about the critical importance of reverse mentoring. It’s one of most powerful and yet most seldom used (less than 10 percent, according to research for my last book The Gen Z Effect) techniques to bridge generational divides and create organizations that can collaborate across them is reverse mentoring. Pioneered by Jack Welch in the late ’90s, as a way to onboard his execs with the then-new internet, reverse mentoring pairs up new hires with older senior leaders to pass knowledge up the organization, rather than the traditional approach to mentoring that passes it down. Are you doing this? I didn’t think so. What are you waiting for?

The bottom line is that we all need to rethink the way we look at age and its implications on ourselves and our organizations. If you’re afraid then chances are that you’re fear is built around an outdated model of the past, because, at least as far as I can see, the future is a pretty exciting place to be.

Design Driven Event 2019

This article was originally published on Inc.

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Thomas KoulopoulosTom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.

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