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Is ageism alive in the Digital Technology sector?

Victoria MacLennan. 04 November 2022, 1:41 pm

“Listen to your elders. Not because they are always right, but because they have more experience being wrong” unknown.

Since joining ITP as CEO I have heard from a range of people on their ageism experiences. From casual ageism comments and labels like boomer used in the workplace, to active discriminatory policies of companies - anecdotally it would seem ageism is alive and worryingly become more obvious as our workforce ages too. 

Our industry faces some complex workforce challenges, under-investment in entry level and junior roles resulting in an imbalanced age range, barriers and behaviours resulting in many groups suffering discrimination and challenges leaving (or not joining) our industry - so it may seem odd I have chosen to write a blog on ageism today. For me any discrimination, any behaviour designed to marginalise a community or individuals needs to be addressed. 

I wrote a version of this blog a couple of years ago and one surprising escalation reported to me has been the use of derogatory and discriminatory language aimed at older workers designed to diminish their value based on age.


Between 2015 and 2030, the number of people in the world aged 60 years or over is projected to grow by 56 per cent, from 901 million to 1.4 billion, and by 2050, the global population of older persons is projected to more than double its size in 2015, reaching nearly 2.1 billion. These stats are from the United Nations, World Population Ageing Report 2015.

Australian government projections indicate the number of Australians over 65 increasing from 2.5 million citizens in 2002 to 6.2 million in 2042, increasing from 13% of the population to 25% of their population.

Aotearoa New Zealand statistics look more like this as summarised by Stats NZ:

  • The over 65 population in 2020 was 842,000, and is predicted to be 1.46 million people by 2048 and 2.06 million by 2073
  • Of the total population this means 16% of our population today are over 65, in 2048 this could be as much as 25% and by 2073, 32 percent of the population will be over 65
  • In 2030 the median age of our population will be 40 and by 2073 over half of our population will be over the age of 45

Companies driving down salary costs

Here is a summary of the stories I have been told, not wanting to disclose individuals, I have generalised the comments:

  • My employer has an unwritten policy of only employing early career people which seems to extend to promotion too, leaving me unable to continue progressing my career with them.
  • My large international employer has been systematically laying off people over the age of 50 replacing them with cheaper younger workers or replacing them by pushing services to cheaper nations.
  • I was a casualty of a restructure where the only people to get laid off were nearing the end of their careers, cost wasn’t mentioned as a reason but the roles we were offered to apply for all had much much lower salaries.

On the surface all of these examples appear to be driven by cost vs experience or capability. As an employer I have some empathy with the challenge of over inflated salaries especially in the digital technology industry. The late 80’s and 90’s when adoption was peaking and Y2K was on the horizon many skills were scarce which in turn inflated salaries. I was lucky enough to establish my career in this era and observed first hand the seemingly obscene money floating around.

Then the 00’s, where technology adoption exploded, created the world of contract technology professionals who commanded hourly rates salaried staff could only dream of — leading to many jumping ship and joining the contracting game. Now in the phase of technology normalisation and rapid transition towards configuration driven and automation, those rates of yesteryear do (as an employer) feel inflated and push up the cost to serve beyond sustainable levels.

These changing market conditions however are no excuse for deliberately discarding swathes is workers due to their age alone. Perhaps the reality is a reset of salary expectations on both sides of this equation is needed?

Overlooked as potential employees

There is a colloquial saying “you can’t teach an old do new tricks” used to describe how much harder it becomes to learn new skills, habits or techniques as we age. Some people consider this attitude creeps into employers minds when hiring. From the conversations I have had recently there are two sides to this adage, employers are often looking for newer emerging skills and techniques, older employees aren’t offered opportunities to learn these emerging skills.

Consider the ageing mainframe operator as an example, her skills have been in such demand for the past 15 years her employer hasn’t offered her opportunities to upskill/reskill or train, opting to leave her focused. The mainframe she supports has been decommissioned and her role along with it. Her employer advises she doesn’t have the skills required for any of the new roles in their organisation, this feedback continues as she hunts for a new job. Some would say our mainframe operator should have predicted this scenario and been upskilling in her own time, others would say her employer is negligible. Either way the upshot for her is employers aren’t attracted to her CV so she isn’t getting interviews.

Like the challenge for younger workers recruiters have a hand to play in this issue. The article below quotes NZ’s former Retirement Commissioner, Diane Maxwell, who sums this up perfectly:

A lot of the roadblock lies with the conscious and unconscious bias of recruitment consultants and hiring staff that simply won’t put the CVs of a 50 or 60-year-old forward. “It drives me nuts,” says Maxwell, who hates the satirical stereotype that someone in their 50s and 60s might be using a Zimmer frame.

Looking for further insight into the psyche of ageism in recruitment I found this study by AARP (an American not-for-profit organisation focused on age concerns) which provides insight into age discrimination experiences of 1500 adults aged 45–74. Their findings indicated 64% of participants believe age discrimination occurs in their workplace and older workers (aged 60–74) are more likely than their younger counterparts (45–59) to say they have not been hired for a job due to their age — 25% and 17% respectively.

Employers are careful not to fall foul of legislation so don’t give candidates direct feedback that their age was a factor. The key frustrations reported to me were the lack of responses from recruiters and employers to applicants (consistent with the experience of young people to be fair); and the language used in many advertisements  “you will have 2–3 years experience” suggesting they are precluded from applying or being considered.

So what?

I could go into the social, health and economic challenges an ageing population pose. I could also talk about how we have a workforce who is retiring later and how unbalanced the ratio of contributing workers to retirees will become pretty soon (based on the demographics). So hoping we can all accept discrimination and bias against older workers runs contrary to our collective interests.

To create a thriving, productive, diverse workforce everyone can participate in should be our collective goal.  Our thriving workforce must be inclusive of older workers as it does young workers, Māori, Pacific peoples, people with disabilities, with different life experiences and backgrounds. 

“Ageism is one of the most unfair paradoxes in the labor market: People put in decades of hard work and then find themselves penalized for having done so” Pretty much sums it up. 

For employers - check your bias? Is too much experience really a euphemism for too expensive? Or something else? Think of the value  adding an experienced head to your team could bring.
For older workers - check yourselves too, are you making an effort to learn new tools and technologies? Are you open and adaptable? Or too set in your ways to embrace change? Don't give your colleagues an excuse.

While our unemployment rates are low this might not be quite as obvious as it could be but as soon as we hit a tougher times this will be amplified.

If you have experienced ageism please send me an email [email protected] with your stories. Kia pai tō rā, Vic 


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