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.



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

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