Project Management

Keep your mind sharp to defeat ageism in IT consulting

The best approach to defeating ageism is to demonstrate to IT consulting prospects that your age is not a liability.

Elaine Massa sent me the following Ask Chip question:

Is there age discrimination in the consulting business or in technology fields in general? I know that I am not as quick as I once was but sometimes think time can actually result in a more comprehensive and take less time in the long run. (Am I just rationalizing?)

We can draw at least three distinct questions from what Elaine says here:

  1. Is age discrimination a factor in our business?
  2. Does age have a real effect on our ability to do our job?
  3. What should we do about our answers to the first two questions?

Age discrimination

There has been a lot written about age bias among technology startups. Startups often have to react to change quickly and put in long hours on the job, both of which seem to favor youthfulness. Even though it's illegal to discriminate based on age, potential candidates who are over forty need to demonstrate that they're still mentally agile and physically capable of handling the strains of that environment if they hope to land the job.

How much that youthful culture extends to the rest of the technology market is hard to say. Undoubtedly, whenever an employer interviews a bright-eyed, well-spoken twenty something, the image of Mark Zuckerberg can't be far from their minds. A fifty-something, on the other hand, provokes the inevitable question about how much longer are they going to be effective, if they even still are?

This is nothing new in our industry. I remember when I was a twenty-something, I worked for a software company in which almost nobody was older than forty. Technology, at least in my lifetime, has always moved swiftly, so we're tempted to believe that any technologist older than we are would be more comfortable working with punch cards and paper tape.

Consulting might be different, though. People often contract a consultant precisely because of their supposed wisdom and experience -- qualities associated more with age than with youth. But it probably depends a lot on the company in question. Are they looking for fresh ideas, or the safety of doing it right? Those are broad strokes, and most prospects have both things in view to varying degrees, as well as other priorities.

The effects of age

As I mentioned above, we expect advancing age to bring experience, and experience to bring wisdom. In psychology, research on crystallized intelligence bears this out. It makes sense that as we acquire greater depth and breadth of learning over time, we are able to draw connections that are simply unavailable to people with less experience.

On the other hand, fluid reasoning, which is the ability to solve problems in novel situations without relying on experience, appears to decline with age. This contributes to the notions that older people are less able to adapt to new situations. Memory can also decline with age, which can defeat the effects of improved crystallized intelligence.

In short, older people provide different advantages than younger people. Less Luke, more Yoda.

What can we do about this?

Some prospects may be so set in their ways (ha!) that nothing will convince them, but the best approach to defeating ageism is to demonstrate that your age is not a liability. Capitalize your strengths, while not ignoring your weaknesses. Sell your wisdom and experience, but also show that you are still mentally youthful.

In order to do that, you'll have to keep your mind sharp. Start with physical fitness. Not only does daily exercise keep you from the grave, it also improves the operation of your brain. Pay attention to diet as well, and make sure you get enough Omega fatty acids along with a balance of other healthful foods. You don't put bad fuel into your car, so don't put it into your brain, either. Finally, exercise your brain. Learn subjects outside your work, to build broader connections. Gaming can improve your memory, responsiveness, and problem-solving skills. Take time to learn new technical skills that stretch your mental abilities, like a new programming language or operating system. Pose difficult problems for yourself, and solve them. Not only will that expand your mental capabilities, it will improve your confidence in your own adaptability, which will in turn help you to convince others that you can still make the grade.

Of course, as the Reuter's article about age bias points out, it doesn't hurt to manipulate the visual cues. Keeping yourself looking younger sends a subtle message that you're still interested in being a vital player. As a matter of fact, I think it's time for me to buzz off my old gray beard.

Before:

After:

Excuse me now, I need to go buy a new phone.

Ask Chip

If you have an IT consulting question, email it to me or use the "Contact" link by my picture at the end of one of my articles, and I'll do my best to answer it. Read guidelines about submitting questions.

About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

23 comments
@Shay_Ginsbourg
@Shay_Ginsbourg

Thank you Chip for this article and all the others. Looking forward to a printed book edition.

builder77777
builder77777

Chip, you looked a lot more distinguished with the beard. Now you look like you are over the hill trying to impress some corporate boss somewhere. Haven't you ever heard of 'Just for Men'? I also thought that it was against the law to discriminate against older people. How can an older person know less than when they started? Heart doctors say that the human heart, if treated right, should be healthy until the late 70's, so you are saying that halfway through your healthy life a person is no longer considered able to perform the work. Maybe you mean that they are too smart and have lived long enough to not accept the BS that these companies are foisting on their employees. Why doesn't the government enforce the laws in this domain? They claim that this is a nation of laws, but they don't even protect the people that live here correctly. Thanks for standing up for the American worker!

fawoodward
fawoodward

Much, much younger looking - and much more handsome!

RMSx32767
RMSx32767

being well spoken. Technically brilliant? Yes. Well spoken? His frequent use of "like" and "you know" indicate otherwise.

PrashantBastodkar
PrashantBastodkar

I am 54. I take a morning walk of 5km regularly. I totally agree with Chip about the advantages. When we solve a problem It really adds to our confidence.

ArnoldZiffle
ArnoldZiffle

First, this is great article, thanks! Second, I know I've been discriminated against for age. Imagine this, great interview ending in chit chat. You leave feeling great. It's a contract, the rate it great you're ready to go. The next day you get the call; They're passing because they feel you are OVERQUALIFIED!! Huh?? How can you be overqualified for a contract? Isn't that what they should want? So now I color my hair and beard and all that. I make sure I know all the new buzzwords. Most importantly I go to school ALL the time! Almost all my friends are half my age. I play all the latest PC games. I do all manner of puzzles. I have several on my smart phone. Why, because it keeps your brain in tip top condition! Get a younger girlfriend! Works for me!

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

Oh, yeah. Old minds. Yeah, my dreams of being a wiz-kid in a dot-com start up long have faded, but I'm okay with it. Believe it or not, there are plenty of potential employers out there not the least bit interested in youthful drama or excitement, and want solid, reliable, economical and mature IT experience. They need a job done on time and on budget, and nothing beats maturity and experience in selling that.

jaimerubio
jaimerubio

Chip only one fail in this article. A recommendation, make love to a women at leas one time per week. This is marvelous to look younger, if not, nobody can not see your big an fresh smile

StevenDDeacon
StevenDDeacon

It is amazing how the young are rediscovering what we 'old timers' have known for decades.

TomMerritt
TomMerritt

I'm 63-1/2. I started my consulting firm just over 25 years ago. I still have my first customer, and several others in the 15 to 20 year old relationship range. I find that my age is a benefit. I know WHY things work, having been around as the industry laid layer after layer of complexity over relatively simple processes. Knowing the history of how a process got to be so complex can be a HUGE benefit in trying to determine why failed now. Perhaps it’s my ancient Mechanical Engineering background, but I think that calling something a “Complicated Solution to a Simple Problem” is about the worst insult you can utter, but that’s our world today. By the way, I thought I invented the acronym RTFM, but I probably heard it along the way somewhere. On the other hand, I guess SOMEBODY must have invented it, and I’ve been using it for years. Love the shirt! Last “By The Way”: Your beard looked great, but your clean-shaven face looks much younger. Honest. I really should shave off my 43 year old mustache like Alex Trebeck did (he looks younger without it), but I think I’d shoot myself first. Keep up the great insight articles!

christopher.ryan
christopher.ryan

In my experience, the younger technician tends towards the quick fix rather than the long term solution - because the latter requires listening to all of the problem. The older man usually comes with a network of colleagues and contacts where not only can he seek (free) advice that can be passed on, but also to whom he can delegate those parts of the solution that he is not up-to-speed on. I am 67 and still well appreciated by my customers and the firm I work part-time for - even to the extent of getting birthday cards from customers! On a consultancy level I come not as a single person, but a backed-up resource. And I remember to say NO to customers when their solution can be done but not within their budget!

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

Closing in on 65 and still a full time field engineer. Clients have grown with me and brought their kids. Now more younger, eager and with the means to stay abreast of the newest toys. Just like always, things break and need to be fixed or replaced. Not many under fourty will climb a ladder to adjust a dish or pull cables through underground to hide a satelite dish in a tree. If you slow down, it will catch up with you but only if you let it. Age is a number but cannnot be judged alone.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

fends off age related disabilities. My Mum who will now admit to be almost 22, qualified for a PhD a couple of years ago. She's currently teaching my brother how to use a PC... It's up to us. Keep doing the same old stuff, spend your time watching the idiot box, instead of lubricating the thinking engine, you seize up. Course in terms of ageism, this is only useful if you are given the chance to prove you haven't fossilised your intellect.

Barry Goldman
Barry Goldman

Thought I'd get my bit in. I'm over 70 and still getting consulting jobs - mainly in the field of database development and data management. I laugh when a 50 year old says they're getting old. Great article and obviously Chip has a good bit of behavioural and health knowledge. Note however that Omega fatty acids are not all the same, 3's and 6's should be in balance but modern diets are more heavy on the 6's - which can be bad.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Now if you were doing it to get a young girl, I could deal with that. A job with a bunch of stupid bigots, not the sort of 'ing I'm interested in....

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Can I work up to that, it would probably kill me.

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