I once worked at an early-stage startup, where one member of the small team (we employed fewer than 10 people) regularly loved to pillory me for being a “grandpa,” asking if I wanted him to get me a wheelchair. I was 37.
Small wonder, then, that I regularly worried that I needed to become obscenely rich by the age of 40 so that I could cash out of tech before it cashiered me for the sin of getting older. Now, years later, I’m still here, still loving tech and have yet to be given my golden bifocals to see out my dotage. Tech has long been a young person’s world, or so it seemed. Has tech gotten older?
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I asked that question on Twitter, and the answers suggest a range of reasons that while tech may not be getting older, it’s also not booting older folks out.
But first, some data
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average age of an internet professional (admittedly vague) is 34.6 years. Though the data is a bit dated, in 2013 Payscale reviewed the median age across 32 tech companies and discovered that just six had a median age over 35. By contrast, look across BLS data and for most manufacturing (45+), farming (46+), and other “old economy” jobs, the average age is considerably older than in tech. Indeed, the median age in the U.S. for non-tech jobs is 42.3 years. In tech the average age of a developer is 29 years.
And yet … this doesn’t tell the full tale.
For example, while we celebrate the idea of young startup founders dropping out of college to pursue their dreams of delivering tacos using drones, most successful startup founders clock in at 40+ years old. As of 2018, according to Statista data, the average age of the top 0.1 percent of startups in terms of growth was 45 years.
In other words, the myth of young entrepreneurs running Silicon Valley is belied by the reality of tech success.
And then there’s the reality that as tech has grown in importance, it has bled beyond Silicon Valley. Detroit isn’t the first place one might look for tech workers, but the automotive industry is increasingly driven by software, not rivets. Ditto retail, financial services and more. We may already be at the point where it makes little sense to talk about the “tech sector” or even “tech workers” when every sector is heavily dependent on tech and requires its employees to be tech savvy.
And now, some people
“I think the people who used to kick out the old folks got old,” quipped developer Rick Houlihan. While he meant that to be a joke, there’s a serious undercurrent to it, as he continued: “Twenty years ago a 50+ year old worker had a tough time with email and had to print out hard copies of everything. Today us old folks can adapt to new tech a little better because we have always had to.” This jibes with my comment above about all industries becoming technology industries: Tech has become so ingrained in how we function that people tend, on balance, to be much more competent with tech. As GitHub’s Christina Warren described it, as tech “has become more entrenched, the whole idea that tech is only for young people no longer makes any sense at all.”
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And then there’s the reality that some things get easier the older you get. As one commentator noted, “As an older person in tech, I must admit that I don’t keep up with the latest frameworks or syntax sugar coating but I feel that translating business or customer requirements into a product design gets easier by experience.” That’s certainly true for an industry analyst like Scott Raynovich (“The best [analysts] are 50+ and when you look around at other analysts in the infrastructure segments that are under 40 there are … none”), where perspective matters a great deal, and perspective doesn’t come at the age of 20.
But it also may be true of some critical areas of tech that are in vogue right now. As Akamai PR strategist Mike Maney suggested, “I wonder if what we’re seeing is a return to the historically less sexy underpinnings of tech — infrastructure, networking, databases, etc. An inflection point where experience making the things that make all the other things possible is what propels the next round of innovation.” You probably aren’t going to build the next great operating system unless you have some experience working with one. (Unless you’re Linus Torvalds.)
That experience, in turn, sees more thoughtful solutions to complicated problems, as Rust developer Clint Byrnum posited: “I don’t think tech kicks people out at 40. We just start to realize the futility of solving every poorly defined problem with an editor and a case of red bull.” This leads some, like Saxonica founder Michael Kay, to declare there’s never been a better time to be old in tech: “[I’m s]till happily coding at 70, why not? If musicians and politicians can still be at the top of their game at that age, why can’t we?”
So is tech’s notorious ageism a thing of the past? Maybe. Maybe not. As ZDNet’s Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols stressed, yes, “Ageism is a problem.” That’s the bad news. The good news, however, is that “for those with flexible minds [who refuse to get stuck on old ways of doing things], there’s no age limit.”
Disclosure: I’ve worked for MongoDB twice: the first time I was 7 years younger but now I’m 7 years smarter.