Opinion

Too young to die, too old for IT?

Perhaps the IT industry isn't old enough to know better, but ageism in the workplace is driving away potential employees and lowering standards where there is lack of experience

But can age and youth ever work together? There seems to be a decreasing chance of that happening in the IT industry. According to research carried out by ITNTO (IT National Training Organisation) for the forthcoming Open University report on ageism in industry, the age profile of employees in the IT sector is getting younger while the number of older people in IT is decreasing. Older employees are usually the first to feel the whack of redundancy programmes and the last to get taken back into the workforce.

"Ageism is a serious problem," says ITNTO's project director, John O'Sullivan. What makes it worse, he says, is that it's a hidden problem. Unlike sexism and racism, IT is not owning up to ageism. It's not even conscious of it.

This, of course, is frustrating, and not just to older workers. At a time of a huge and endemic IT skills shortage, "IT is not appealing to half the catchment, and is missing out on business experience, project management, customer service and interpersonal skills," says O'Sullivan.

Although IT is hardly alone in being ageist, given the prevailing Western youth-oriented social culture, the problem is exacerbated by the general image of the industry being associated with the young and dynamic. As the youngest technology of Western civilisation, its image has always been young, and now the Internet revolution is reinforcing that idea all over again.

It's ironic, perhaps, that it is exactly the teenage techies of the 1970s who celebrated that youthful image who are now the victims of it, replaced by the upcoming generation of e-techies. As the youthful image of IT prevails, so the temptation increases to appoint ever younger managers in the hope that they will display all the bravura, dynamism, risk-taking and iconoclastic qualities that youth is assumed to possess.

But managers, points out O'Sullivan, are more comfortable employing people younger than they are themselves, and down goes the average age of the IT department yet again.

They are also more likely to explain their preference for younger IT staff by claiming that older ones just can't hack the new technology.

"That's a myth," retaliates Ray Hanks of recruitment agency Wrinklies Direct, whose motto is "Been there, done that, got the cardie". "A huge number can and do reskill themselves."

Anyone, points out O'Sullivan, whose background is in a structured business discipline such as accountancy and engineering can take to IT, and anyone who is technically competent in old IT can do the same in new IT.

What isn't a myth, says Hanks, "is the manifest discrimination about the abilities of older people".

But is it all unrelenting and grim for the grave-dodgers? "Discrimination is rampant on the surface," Hanks admits, with a huge reliance on recruitment agencies and personnel departments who use date of birth as the initial short-list differentiator.

But, he points out, once employers dig a little deeper, they're very happy to take on older people if they can do the job, especially in areas such as customer support or project management where the employer will need an individual with the skills and experience to handle pressures and deadlines. Some even prefer older staff. "When we're recruiting we tend to avoid the young whizz kids because they'll move on to another job," says one UK IT director.

Whizz kids, he reminds us, can be too ambitious, too easily bored, and eager to be off chasing rainbows. They can also be too keen to get their hands on the latest technology, irrespective of whether the business really needs it.

And for O'Sullivan the bottom line is global demographics, the ageing of the population and the growing demand for IT skills. "Demand will force more flexibility in recruitment and retention," he promises.

Do you run an ageist IT department?

You probably have an ageism problem, warns O'Sullivan, if:

You run recruitment campaigns for "young dynamic people" without thinking about it

Your managers automatically feel less threatened and more comfortable with younger subordinates

You, or your personnel department, use date of birth as the first filter when sorting job applicants

You automatically think the "e" word can only be understood by someone who knows it also stands for ecstasy

You wonder why it's so hard to find staff with extensive project management experience

You wonder why staff never seem to stay put these days, always off for a better job just as you've settled them into the one they're about to leave. Whatever happened to loyalty?

You run a pensions scheme designed for younger workers and a redundancy scheme targeted at older ones

You have a worsening skills shortage.

Julia Vowler

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This was first published in August 2000

 

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