IT Employment

Debunking older worker stereotypes

TechRepublic's Toni Bowers discusses research that debunks some of the myths that keep older workers from being hired.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers 45 and older had lower unemployment rates in 2008 than younger workers; however, older workers stayed unemployed longer than their younger counterparts.

From a story in The New York Times Magazine, the fact that older workers stayed unemployed longer was due to three beliefs by prospective employers:

  • Older workers have higher health care costs.
  • Older workers command higher salaries.
  • Older workers are less productive and less open to risk.

To address the first issue: Insurers don't exactly publicize their actuary tables, but older workers are charged more on individual plans. But, according to The U.S. News and World Report, there is little empirical evidence showing that insurers charge employers more in premiums for older workers. As a matter of fact, a law was passed in New York that prohibits insurers from charging rates based on age.

On the subject of higher salaries, well, I hope older workers would ask for higher salaries; they've been at the game a lot longer and bring a lot of real-world experience to the table. And you get what you pay for.

According to a report prepared for AARP by the human resources and financial consulting firm Towers Perrin, a worker who's 50 or older will be more productive than someone younger who has less on-the-job experience.

And very recently, another research project show that "seniors" more than hold their own when it comes to risk-taking. According to a piece in The New York Times Magazine:

Gary Charness, an economics professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Marie Claire Villeval, a colleague from the University of Lyon, published the results of a study in which they pitted "seniors" (those over 50) against "juniors" (those under 30) in three different decision-making tasks. These were formulated to test risk taking, competitiveness and cooperation. The seniors were also more cooperative, contributing risk-taking, which the researchers assessed via an investing game, the seniors invested slightly more than the juniors. Seniors (50 and over) performed better than juniors (30 and under) in several tests, including a competitive word game.

An interesting side note to the study came out in the cooperation section of the test: Groups with a mix of ages outperformed homogeneous groups. Charness concludes that it's best to have a a range of ages in the office.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

26 comments
ehbeitz
ehbeitz

Having worked in IT for more than 50 years - I may be chronologically old but I am not yet senile. Young IT professionals may know their stuff, but understanding the implications of the megabytes of code they invoke with a simple unnecessary procedure call, eludes them. I may plod - but my code doesn't require (much) maintenance!

Lazarus439
Lazarus439

I got a major in Computer Science in 1971, but didn't plan on using it in the Air Force. I was going to be a pilot, don't you know? Well, I did in fact fly off and on for just over 22 years, but the rest of the time was all about about computers. From Honeywell H6000 series mainframes (yep, COBOL! and FORTRAN and JCL and...) to an HP "desktop calculator" that looked for all the world like a small computer to building out a dozen NetWare 3.12 networks with Windows for Workgroups. 16 years later, the flying has gone away but the computers haven't - and probably won't. I can still use a DOS prompt, er, "command window", but it's on the Windows 7 machine I'm using to see how well Win7 is going to get along with my company's software inventory. (so far, so good, by the way) and doing IT consulting after hours for 4 small firms. My brother-in-law does desktop support for the university here and has to deal with PhDs who haven't had an original thought since their dissertations, which they wrote before electronic typewriters, let alone PCs, but still look down on people who simply "work" for a living. He estimates that IT folks have to learn about a Master's degree worth of new things every three years - over and over again. Having picked up one of those degrees along the way, I think he's almost right - but three years is only if you can take off summer vacations! Otherwise, it's 24-30 months! I suspect that there may be some truth to the "old folks" stereotypes, particularly in fields where there is not the constant influx of new tools, techniques, technologies, etc., etc. that make IT both awfully interesting and an awful lot of work. However, in this business, if one doesn't learn a lot along the way, the last thing a prejudiced (or ignorant) hiring manager would have to use as a reason for not hiring the oldster is "over qualified".

Englebert
Englebert

Reminds me of a project I contracted with where the young 'uns were speeding right by the older one (me). Then came the next phase of testing. And their work started collapsing, causing numerous problems, requiring re-work, re-think and a mess to clean-up. Whereas mine went smoothly thru. To the point, that they then come running to me for help and advice. Nothing beats experience. The sophisticated manager understands the benefits of having a diverse team with a variety of experience and abilities over the hot-shot manager who merely wants to boast of how young his team is.

mtg42
mtg42

Even though age discrimination is illegal, it is one type of discrimination that many firms and HR people admit to practicing, at least off the record, or they use a thinly veiled euphemism (you're over qualified, you're too senior). There is a certain irony there, because they too, if they're lucky, will get old. Of course when ever you discuss groups, such as "older" or "younger", there are many exceptions, but here are some generalities I've observed. Older workers have higher health care costs. If your talking about direct costs to the company, usually not true. Many companies don't pay the full cost of medical coverage, but a fixed amount per employee, and the employee pays the remainder. In my case at least, individual or self & spouse coverage is less than family coverage, even though we're old. Also, I'm talking about older "working-age" people, approx 50-65, not true geezers. Many of my peers take better care of themselves than our exercise-free, fast food-eating, video game playing younger coworkers. Under 65, lifestyle is often a more compelling risk factor than age. Older workers command higher salaries. This is a specious argument. Every company has a pay range set before they start looking to hire, and if the candidates are out of that range, too bad. Job hunters can "command" very little, unless they bring added value to the equation. Older workers are less productive and less open to risk. If we're not talking about a physically demanding job, I can't see the "less productive". If you can, why? Less open to risk, that is more dependant on personality than age, except in my experience, older workers are less likely to roll the dice with company money, on a big gamble, that if it pays off, will help the individual's career more than the company. Also older workers are dependable, They don't take maternity leave, have young kids getting sick, parent teacher conferences, kids to get at daycare before closing, etc. There is also much less drama, both professionally & personally. They are usually happy being good at their job, and being recognized as such, they don't have delusions of grandeur and plans of running the corporation in three years, no matter who they screw over or what they screw up to get there. They also show up on Monday, not calling from Vegas with their new love. Sorry for the length.

thinker999
thinker999

Put this article, and the supporting information into the hands of every cocky, self-absorbed, 30-something hiring manager who thinks that anyone over 50 is a dinosaur just marking time until they die. If the population is truly gradually growing older, and retirement systems are either going broke, or making us wait until later to retire, we're going to need to do something other than be counter people at MickeyD's or greeters at Wal-Mart in order to pay our bills, prop up the economy and support all those in the 'receiving' lines.

jmarkovic32
jmarkovic32

Even though the stigma surrounding older workers is false, that doesn't matter because unfortunately, perception is the reality. When you have an army of mid-level people applying for even the most menial of positions--especially in IT--there's just no room for older workers in non-management positions. The same is true with entry-level folks. With the abundance of cheap talent on the streets these days coupled with employers' "do more with less" mentality, they are looking for and getting the most bang for their buck. They can't afford to train younger workers or sacrifice productivity until they get up to speed, so they hire mid-career folks that are willing to work for entry-level pay. This will have a negative effect on employers once/if the job market improves. Many employers will see an unprecedented brain drain and will face the dilemma of blowing a hole in the budget to retain these employees or hiring an army of inexperienced entry-level workers which comes with its own costs in training and lack of productivity. But with the average "life-span" of the c-level exec and management person in the single-digits, I don't expect many of them to be this forward-thinking.

gfetters
gfetters

I think the point about wages is incorrect. Age doesn't equal increased productivity. As a matter of fact its the opposite. And its so much cheaper to have engineering done in China and other LCC's, there is no way to compete on cost. I can pay $0.50 an hr in China for the same work that costs $60 an hr in the US. And don't be so naive as to think the work isn't every bit as professional or as high quality.

jkameleon
jkameleon

The real problem with older workers is experience. They've seen all the management fads in the book, and they can't be trickes as easy as younger workers.

firstaborean
firstaborean

I retired from my electronics engineering consulting career at 50, so that I could devote more time to my writing career. Companies that shunned my expertise -- and there were some -- lost out. My first electronics employer, also the best until I became independent, was Hughes Aircraft, where they had a saying, "It takes two years to teach electronics to a grad double-E." Not that I despise children; I don't; but it takes a long time to garner the experience to have real expertise. At my peak, I solved problems in forty minutes that staffers working for six months couldn't. And I got paid for it, too. Which costs more, my $400 minimum (at that time) or the salary of an engineer for half a year?

TheProfessorDan
TheProfessorDan

This is an excellent blog and I could not agree more that not highering employees based on age is ludicrous. I have fervently debated this point for a while. In reference to the fact that older employees demand higher health care costs, was it every factored in that older employees are less likely to have dependants and thus costing the company less money because they don?t need a family plan. I agree with Ms. Bowers that older employees will demand higher salaries and even though I agree to a certain extent that an older employee should in theory have more experience, the other factor is that older employees tend to demand higher salaries because they tend to have elevated their life style. So the second point is semi-valid. But the third point is another farce. Younger employees tend to have more distractions like family obligations. I know that the older works here at my office tend to miss less than the younger ones because they don't have to worry about daycare and choir concerts and sports practices like younger employees (I fall into the younger category so I'm pointing the finger at myself). Another factor that I hear is that employers like younger workers because they want an employee that will be with them for a while. This is also ridiculous. I have no statistics to back me up but I don't see many employees staying at jobs for long. Younger employees tend to look for the next big payday especially if they are brought in with an entry level salary.

Silent Observer
Silent Observer

"According to a report prepared for AARP by the human resources and financial consulting firm Towers Perrin, a worker who?s 50 or older will be more productive than someone younger who has less on-the-job experience." Yet jobs in my company are also being sent overseas. We have same experience with people there - maybe cause they are younger and cheaper. Another factor is initiative. Older workers know when someone has to lead and if that isn't happening then I would believe the experience worker (i.e. older) would know WHEN to step up and make things happen.

al
al

I was just told (off the record, of course) that not only am I "over qualified", but the company could not afford to pay me what I was worth. I wasn't asking for more than what was advertised as the "salary", but they saw the creds and ran the other way. You would think that they would see the creds, recognize the bargain, and then jump on it. To get "more for your money" is just good business, if you ask me. I guess that is why I recently ran across a good friend, damn good at what he does, with quite a bit of experience in his field (communications), wearing a security guard's uniform.

jk2001
jk2001

The words of experience. I find that, with age, I make better decisions about how to get things done. There are just fewer "yak shaving" excursions. Not none, but, fewer, and that adds up to a lot of money saved. The more you know, the more aware you become of what you don't know. You know the quantity of this void of knowledge, and have an idea of what it'll take to fill it. You also develop some respect for "business" and the skill it takes to operate one for years and years. It's not much to run a startup into the ground in a year, or a well capitalized one to take three years to burn through VC money. It's really something to create cash flow, sales, and repeat sales. It's difficult to acquire other businesses and merge the projects and staff successfully. Balancing long term planning, sales, and finance isn't easy, and it behooves IT to make an effort to understand business. You also learn to respect "grunt" labor, whether it's the people who maintain the office space, or your fellow coders who crank out the "easy" code. Or even the outsourcers who threaten your livelihood. That's not to say that all older folks are making better decisions and being better people. There are some older programmers who aren't good at self-management and are immature.

lovingNJ
lovingNJ

An organization would have to have good metrics to measure worker productivity and value. In the absence of such metrics (which don't seem to exist in software development), management will continue to hire cheaper, inexperienced people to improve the bottom-line in the short run. In my experience, I have seen little appreciation for experience.

tsmith71553
tsmith71553

yes, an older worker who "has been around the block a time or two" is extremely more savvy about management ploys and other manipulative aspects, which the younger folks are just totally naive to, or they're so desparate to get ahead that they'll either "turn a blind eye" or "play right along" .. the ones who have been around a while are, for the most part, just plain sick of all the games ..

jmarkovic32
jmarkovic32

Some employers may pay for just an employee, but most have employees cover their spouse and children. I got my plan for free when I was single, but after I got married, I had to fork over $500+/month just for my wife. The whole age discrimination thing is a slippery slope. Statistically women are more expensive to hire as well because they need maternity coverage and maternity leave. Fat people have more health problems. Should a company have a "minimum average weight". What about smokers? What about races of people? See where I'm going. Again, C-level execs and management are naturally myopic. They are only looking to pad their resumes to move to the next 7 or 8 figure salary.

Lazarus439
Lazarus439

I often wonder about "over qualified" as a reason not to hire as well and can come with only 3 reasons, one semi-good and two BS: Semi-good: if you're truly overqualified, the company expects/fears you'll jump to a new/better job as soon as one comes along (I doubt your friend the security guard wants to stay in that line of work.) There are costs with hiring anyone, so setting up to repeat the process isn't really smart, and there is always some start-up time for anyone while he/she learns the lay of the land in the company. However, if you're that good, I don't see why the company wouldn't jump at the chance to get "free" expertise that it otherwise couldn't afford. BS: You're smarted/better/more capable and qualified than your would-be supervisor and maybe even the next level up from him/her. BS2: The company can't afford to pay you what you're worth. To some extent, this relates to the semi-good reason above. However, it ignores all the non-monetary reasons: a (much) shorter commute, better hours, flexible schedule (or simply being on call only 12x5 rather than 24x7), etc. There are a lot of good reasons why someone would actually want a "downgrade" position, other than just a place to hang out until something better comes along.

yattwood
yattwood

I are a 1958 Baby (yah, do the math) I started out as a COBOL/CICS/DL/I programmer; in the early 1990's the Oracle DBA where I was working left, and the manuals were put on my desk, and I was told: "Install Oracle on an NCR UNIX Server" Didn't know UNIX. Didn't know Oracle. But - I got "UNIX for Dummies", learned on a HP-UX workstation that I persuaded one of the SysAdmins to give me a userid on, wrestled my way through the Oracle 7.0.13 install - and never looked back. One time, I was sent out to install Oracle at lab that had a DEC Alpha running VMS. Didn't know VMS. I got the book: "UNIX for VMS Users", looked up the equivalent UNIX command (VMS was not too shabby, actually) - and installed Oracle. Since then, I've had to learn: SQL Server, a bit of DB2; the main system I support is an Oracle 8.1.7.4 (don't ask) on HP-UX, but I've been recently given an Oracle 10g Release 2 system, which forces me to constantly look up the newer features not available in 8.1.7.4. I read Computerworld and Tech Republic constantly - just today, I found out what Hadoop is (a file/data management system for Very Large Databases, based on Google's MapPoint). So, I think this 1958 Baby can adapt, just fine, thank you very much! I also note that the offshore DBA's in my group, located in India, will do _only exactly as they are told_, and either are unable or unwilling to do things on their own to resolve problems - so what, exactly, is their advantage, other than a perceived "cost savings"...

TheProfessorDan
TheProfessorDan

Most places that I have worked do offer coverage for families but you just pay more but the companies still pays more for a family plan than for a single person. My problem with the concept of age discrimanation is that it comes down to making an assumption about a person based on their age. How different is this than making a decision about a person based upon their color, race or their sex? I am sure that we all know someone that debunks whatever moronic stereotypes there are about being older. Even though it isn't nearly as public as racism or sexism, ageism is just as wrong.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I've been a tech for twenty + years, so I'm an obvious failure, I mean I should be CTO by now..... Never understood how man management ever got on a tech career path,as though it was some sort of technical progression.

al
al

Like I said, I did not ask for more than what they were advertising - and to be quite honest I was really looking forward to working in the position. It was one that would constantly keep me engaged and allow me to stay on the top of things. Perhaps a topic for another discussion thread, getting away from the "old worker" idea, would be "is it a crime to want to be a tech?" For some reason we have gotten into the mindset that older workers must try to be management. Though I can function as a manager, I REALLY LIKE BEING A TECH. With only 10 years left before the "retirement line", I'd love to go out doing what I love.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

We didn't turn up to get paid xk less than what the market did might or may bear. But 2xk more than nothing... Overqualified is always BS, after all employee turnover after hiring some cheap clueless unqualified numpty who turned out (surprise !) not to be able to do the job, seems to be quite popular.

al
al

Check the dates of the "degrees". They were after the Air Force. Another sign that many of us are as good and usually better than those that they look at. Yes - I'm getting up a head of steam. I'm tired of this country thinking only the young (in years) are young. I feel only slightly different than the day I reported for basic training. The difference is that I now know not to talk back to the Training Instructor. :-)

PoppaTab
PoppaTab

Wow! you are a month older than me :), better educated by far though. I chose Army before college.

al
al

30 years in service to my country (both active duty and contractor), BS in Computer Science(1997), MA in Computer Resources and Information Management (2007), Working on a doctorate in Computer Science, Certifications out the ... well you know, 9 different programming languages, 7 different OSs and their variants (both PC and MainFrame - yes I love OpenVMS), a ton of time on the road working out tech/computer problems for varied sites around the world, thousands of hours learning the "new idea dejour", learning and teaching go hand in hand with getting things done, yet... the only thing the hiring folks see is my birthdate (September 1955) and my well earned grey streaked hair. Just because I (and all those like me) was there at the beginning of the PC revolution doesn't mean I am not still "here" In fact, I too get things fixed in a fraction of the time of the kids. Still - who do they hire? You guessed it.

beechC23
beechC23

I am of the same vintage (1958, International Geophysical Year incicentally). Started work in 1980 with a chemistry degree and half a minor in computer science. First project was to program a Rockwell Aim 65 microcomputer to input data streams from various parameters measured on a smoke stack in a paper mill, and compute the emission level. Input programmed in Assembler, data stored on a Radio Shack cassette player, results calculated in Basic after conversion of results from hexadecimal to decimal... For this I was paid $17.5k a year, a princely sum at the time (enough that I could afford a brand-new Honda... even with new car loans at 19% at the time). Ran my own lab for many years, learned and wrote applications in VBA along the way. Jumped from heavy industry to scientific and then medical software as business analyst in 2004, at age 46. So yes, I can adapt as well... nearly 6 years later I'm still there, learning new things every day, and working as project manager on several large-scale, multi-faceted, national-level projects. Both young and old have smarts to bring to the table, and one rather balances the other, rather than being an either-or thing.