Inclusion In Tech: Are We Doing Enough About Ageism?

March 12, 2023

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Later this month, I’ll be turning 28.

It’s strange to think now that I had started learning English when I was 8 – this means that was 20 years ago. A fifth of a century. It makes me feel… Old. See, at this point in my life I am at a curious crossroads: I’m young enough to have played Minecraft as a teenager, but not young enough to be actively interested in Fortnite. I am also old enough to have operated a VHS and used dial-up, but not old enough to have listened to a vinyl. This curious limbo also begins to put me in some danger in the tech market, one that we don’t talk about it as much as we should.

Back to Humans

Earlier this month, I was scrolling through my Twitter timeline and I got a DM from a fellow family member. She asked: “do you know any company who’s crazy enough to hire a remote trainee?”. This question needs to be seen in context: she is almost finishing graduating as a BSc. of Computer Science, and here in Brazil, it is mandatory for you to do some “trainee” (usually unpaid) work before you are allowed to receive your diploma. She lives in a very small town in a mostly-rural state where there are basically no tech companies, so she is looking for a remote trainee position. “Well”, you might say, “in a post-pandemic tech world, this is not actually something unheard of”. Companies big and small have finally seen the light and adopted home office as a standard for developers in many cases. Even I have been working remotely since 2018, and I barely had a CV back then. So she should not have too much trouble finding that type of role, right?

Well, here is the catch-22: she’s over 40. In fact, I think she might be closer to her 50s now. This family member actually told me she was this close to scoring a good opportunity in a junior-level Salesforce role, then at the last stage of the screening process, the recruiter turned her down after she disclosed her age.

Of course, that’s illegal. But the law is not enforced, and pursuing that case would take a few years inside the Brazilian justice system. So let’s talk about something we can influence right now, without the need of politics: culture.

Living In The New World, Thinking In The Past

There is a lot of societal expectation in regards of how your age should relate to your career. In your 20s, it is expected for you to start a career as a junior or trainee, and shortly step up your game to a full employee. In your 30s, you should rise to the level of a middle manager or some kind of supervisor role, and then in your 40s, you finally finish climbing the ladder up to the role of a director or CEO, until you retire with a pile of cash and a golden watch in your late 50s or early 60s.

The consequences of preserving this century-old mindset are essentially preventing a fellow relative of mine to graduate college. People who are 40+ should not be afraid to pursue starter-level opportunities, and they should not be seen as incompetent just because they are supposedly a lot less young than their fellow trainee or junior-level professional peers. The thing is, jobs are not the relatively safe harbors they once were. The modern job market is extremely dynamic, especially in tech; it is not unexpected for developers to switch companies every 2-3 years, simply because it is the logical next career step in many cases. We have flattened hierarchies, but salary growth within most companies is also flat. It’s not like modern HR wants developers or tech-related people to quit after a couple years, it’s just that it no longer strikes them as unexpected and their plans now take that behavior in consideration.

Not only that, but some people actually decide to switch industries entirely – especially the tech industry, which has a lot of interesting cases of fame and fortune, which naturally brings in more people from more traditional sectors, or even those who were never employed, into giving it a try. So we’re not talking about people who are in their 40s looking for trainee roles because they cannot be trusted with a full or even senior level roles. We are talking about people who are new to the sector, and that’s it – that’s the only judgement we should be making in terms of age.

It is curious that we maintain this thinking of the “old” world today, especially when we consider that not even back then that made any sense. Just think how many entrepreneurs did not grow within a safe company structure and were already entering old age by the time their business simply boomed; founder of Coca Cola was 54 by the time he started his business (in the 1800s!), and Colonel Sanders was 62 when he founded his chicken-based empire. And because ageism is a two-sided coin, we also have the case of extremely young people who got big very quick, such as Bill Gates who founded MS at age 20, or Mark “The Zucc” Zuckerberg, which founded Facebook at age 19 (granted, this example is a bit more modern, but my point stands).

Living In The New World, How You Gonna Last?

I am one who believes that diversity tends to come naturally when we overcome our own limiting views and prejudices. At all levels, having a diverse team with different backgrounds, life stories and personal views, is a very strong tool for generating value for customers, which also translates into profits for the company and its shareholders, and a bigger slice of the pie to collaborators. This is because those different viewpoints complement one another; what may seem obvious to someone might be something completely revolutionary for others. So we should not leave 40+ individuals out of this, nor we should ignore younger voices just because they are young; we have more than enough examples to prove that there is no correlation with age and creation of value.

Sometimes, the idea which strikes gold could come from the person with the white hair, or it could come from the college freshman – a good idea is a good idea, period. And good ideas are good for business.