Why is Ageism Alive and Well?

One of the nice things about the social networking sites such as LinkedIn, is that they allow me to reconnect with people I worked with years ago. I recently re-met a colleague from my undergraduate days, and a colleague I worked with 25 years ago.

I mentioned to one of these colleagues’ peers that I’d know this person for over 30 years. His response was, “You don’t look old enough to retire.” !!!! My silent response: I’ve got news for you, buddy: people who start to work at 22, work for 43 years if they retire at 65. Maybe you missed addition in elementary school.

What I actually said was, “I’m not. Hey, with one in college and one soon to be, Mark and I may never retire. Even if I was ‘old enough to retire,’ why would I retire when I’m still learning and having fun?”

If this had been the only couple of conversations about ageism over the last couple of months, maybe I could ignore it. But when I met a colleague of long-standing (an old friend) at a conference, his hair was dark brown again. I asked him why. “I’d been passed over for a promotion to the C-level, so before I started my new job search, I dyed my hair to look younger.” Another C-level colleague asked me to explain to his staff we’d known each other for a few years, not the 15 years we’ve actually known each other and worked together.

Once I have more than one hand’s worth  of data, including, Age and Agile Are Orthogonal, I decided I wasn’t nuts about this, and people in our industry are discriminating about people over 40 or 50 or 60. (Until they meet me 🙂

HR folks: you and I know it’s illegal. Hiring managers, not only is it illegal to discriminate based on age, it automatically removes people from your consideration who may turn out to be some of the best employees you can hire. Some benefits of hiring a mature candidate can be:

  • With any luck, the candidate has emotional maturity. That makes the candidate more able to ease into a team.
  • More often, I see more mature candidates who are happy where they are. They don’t want your job. They don’t want to backstab you to get ahead. They want a reasonable job for a reasonable pay. Moving up the ladder makes no sense to them.
  • They want to do good work, and they know what that is.
  • They know how to pace themselves.
  • They know (more than young candidates) how to evaluate options and not just pick the first option that appears.

Not all mature candidates are perfect. I’m certainly generalizing here. But let’s be clear: Turning 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 does not prevent someone from being a great employee. Will you have trouble getting that person to work a lot of overtime? I hope so–lots of overtime means lots of mistakes. Will you get someone who may have more adaptability? I hope so. Will you get someone who doesn’t have to be taught what a good job is? I hope so. I can’t guarantee these things, but in my experience, a more mature candidate can be a great employee.

Don’t discriminate based on age or what you think the person requires for salary. At least do a phone screen. You won’t be able to hire someone cheap to work all hours, but remember, you get what you pay for. Don’t rule a candidate out because you saw the date he or she graduated from university. You might get someone with one year of experience many times, see What’s a Year of Experience? But you might just find a great candidate who can help your team jell and help create a great product. Ageism is not helpful. Don’t help make it part of our industry.

4 Replies to “Why is Ageism Alive and Well?”

  1. You old people are all alike 😉

    This can be a tough one. On one hand it is clearly illegal to discriminate. On the other hand, I have met many people over 40 who don’t know anything beyond dial-up Internet access.

    I see this as an issue of open or closed minds. I have met many people in their late 20s who have not learned a thing since their first day on the job.

    I would hope that HR people are smarter than just looking at birth dates.

    What has the person done lately?

  2. Dave Snowden, on a panel at XP2008, let slip a recent research result. I didn’t get the source but it sounds both plausible and hopeful. We know that the brain changes from birth to about the mid-20’s, at which point most people have pretty much made up their minds about stuff. It turns out that things open up again from our mid-40’s and that we become more innovative again. This makes sense in evolutionary terms since traditionally that would be when we would become an elder and have to deal with grandchildren and more responsibility. Let’s hope it’s true.

  3. What a thoughtful article. I have a been a victim of Aegism in the IT industry in Sri Lanka.

    There is a certain company that does travel related software development in Colombo. When I applied for a Project Manager role, there was not even an acknowledgement. Then I probed through a previous team member of mine, their HR Manager had told him, he did not think that a 48 year old could add any value in an environment where most developers are in the age bracket of 27 – 35 years. I felt slighted but just took it up because I am mature.

    Some of our young developers in the software world are brash and insolent. They do not think that they will also age, like everyone. As JR says in her post, I have not retired from the IT industry because I am over the hill.

    I think it is mostly a lack of awareness and a touch of an inferirority complex. I hope these young developers are always managed by older HR Managers to gety some real sense inside their “nuts”.

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