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Age Discrimination In Digital: Does It Exist + What Can We Do? (#Rant)

Lately I’ve been having a lot of conversations with experienced professionals struggling to shift their career into digital. Not only is the field highly competitive, but it’s also seen by some as a space where the younger digital natives dominate. The folks I’ve been talking to self-identify as older workers who are too old for digital. And, trust me, they’re not old!

It got me thinking about about ageism and age discrimination in digital. I’d like to say that it doesn’t exist, but frankly, I think it does. The next question, then, is what ought we to do about it? And in the meantime, how can we learn to navigate it as job seekers, hiring managers, and colleagues?

In this article

I Surveyed People About Age Discrimination In Digital

To get my finger on the pulse of this topic, I reached out to a few members of our global community. I ended up talking to 47 different people representing a variety of age ranges and positions within the digital industry. 28 of them worked in digital or the tech industry, 16 were looking for a job in digital, and 3 of them were hiring managers.

pie chart showing breakdown of people surveyed

Here’s a breakdown of the respondents we spoke to for this article.

This wasn’t necessarily a statistically-sound research endeavour, but it did provide some preliminary insights into the varied perspectives in our industry when it comes to age discrimination.

Here Are Some Things I Found Interesting:

Age Is Somewhat Of An Invisible Limit

Not everyone I talked to thought that age is a limiting factor for applying for roles in digital. In fact, 3 folks over the age of 46 said it wasn’t a limiting factor at all. But among the 3 hiring managers I had spoken to, none of them had hired someone over the age of 45 in the past 12 months.

Age Bias Can Work In Reverse

Of the job seekers I spoke with, only two people said that they were likely to apply for a role at a company where the average age was less than 30, but 11 people said they would apply for a role at a company where the average age was over 40.

Age Gaps Between Colleagues Aren’t As Difficult To Navigate As One Might Think

Of the digital professionals I talked to, only 2 people felt that the age of their colleagues impacted the way they build relationships inside and outside of work. The vast majority said it only mattered a little bit.

The Ability To Learn New Things Is Valued More Than Past Education

Accepting that I only spoke with 3 hiring managers, it was overwhelmingly the case that a candidate’s ability to prove they can learn new things outweighed any emphasis on recent education.

Ageism In Digital Might Not Be Everywhere, But It Exists

Of the people I spoke to, 45 people felt that ageism in digital exists, and only 2 people said they didn’t think it really existed. Nobody said outright that it didn’t exist.

people who think age discrimination exists vs people who don't

The vast majority of people we spoke to agreed that age discrimination does exist in digital.

Alright, alright, I know that none of these constitute conclusions with any weight or gravitas, but it did get me thinking about the opportunities we could be missing because our unconscious bias around age is preventing potent pairings of talented individuals. Ready for a rant?

Here’s My Take On The Issue

The Digital Industry Has Grown Up

Like any industry, the digital industry was once young, but it is maturing — both naturally and out of necessity. Digital doesn’t necessarily mean “young, funky agency with ping pong tables and wine on tap” anymore. In some cases, digital is a team within a massive insurance company or global bank. In other cases, digital is a cross-cutting agenda intended to modernize all areas of an enterprise business.

But unlike other industries, digital is changing rapidly every day. Technology is changing every day. The skills you need to do your job are changing every day. The type of projects you’ll be asked to deliver are changing every day.

To quote Graeme Wood: “Change has never happened this fast before, and it will never be this slow again.” That is the characteristic complexity of the digital world.

Succeeding In Digital Means Keeping Up. Change My Mind!

I personally believe that digital culture being “young” stemmed from the inception of digital agencies, where larger organizations literally had to purchase the services of young professionals who had figured out how to build websites and apps in their bedroom or dorm while putting off doing their homework.

But it wasn’t youth alone that drove that marketplace—it was having the ability to master something new. And I don’t mean learning new things like how to bake bread or speak in a different language or something that people have been doing since the dawn of time. I mean the ability to wrap your head around something that has truly only existed on this planet for a handful of years and then translate the implications of that new thing into a business context.

So, what does that have to do with age discrimination? Not much… and everything—all at the same time.

Our Unconscious (Age) Bias

As hiring managers working in digital, it is likely that we have some unconscious bias. We may be subconsciously looking for younger workers that look like us when we started out in digital. We may be involuntarily looking for the young minds that know what TikTok is because we have no idea what TikTok is (I’m talking about myself here). We may be unknowingly looking for an apprentice to groom into the next 43 years of their career, not older people who have as much experience as we do.

As jobseekers, we have an absolutely rational fear that we won’t fit into the culture of digital teams. Will we be the ones who have to head home to mind our children or grandchildren while the rest of the team goes out for drinks? Will we be the ones who eat their lunch alone while our millennial cohorts go and stand in line for 20 minutes to get artisan bubble tea? Will we be the ones known for telling good (read, bad) dad jokes?

When you put that together, you start seeing an ocean of missed opportunities for teams to be great. All because of age.

Policies vs. Realities

But wait, aren’t there already laws in place to address this? Aren’t there avenues one could pursue when they feel they have been subject to age discrimination?

Well, yes. In the United States, for example, there is the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) which is enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The act applies to organizations with 20 or more employees and is meant to protect people who are age 40 or older.

I won’t attempt to explain it better than others more qualified than me, but I did find this wording from Indeed’s Guide to ADEA useful:

“The purpose of the ADEA is to encourage employers to make employment decisions based on an individual’s abilities rather than their age and to prohibit employers from using unfounded assumptions, biases and stereotypes about how age impacts an individual’s ability when making those decisions.”

But arguably the existence of these measures has not eliminated the fears, anxieties, and behaviors associated with age discrimination—especially in digital, where skill and youth can be fallaciously conflated.

Ways To Combat Age Bias

I don’t really have any concrete answers here; it’s a complex problem. But here’s some ways that I think we can navigate—and do our part to combat—age discrimination in digital:

As Hiring Managers And Recruiters:

  • Constantly check your unconscious bias as you interview older applicants that *might* not be a good culture fit due to their age.
  • Advocate for having measures in place to remove ageism from the hiring process, like stripping graduation dates from resumes prior to evaluation.
  • Don’t picture your great candidate not partaking in social activities. Instead, picture how you and your team will make sure that person feels comfortable enough to get involved.
  • As you interview, find ways to dig deeper into soft skills that maybe weren’t in the job posting, but are the missing link in your current team.
  • When talking about how the interview went with your cohorts, don’t fall into the trap of perpetuating age discrimination. If someone asks you “hey, did that old guy want to work here?”, gently educate that person about the merits of experience and a well-rounded work environment.

As Job-Seekers:

  • Prove your ability to learn new things. Maybe don’t start with how you taught yourself Fortran, but do talk about the blockchain bootcamp you just completed.
  • Don’t go out of your way to blend in, but do go out of your way to not stick out. Have a look at the company’s social media. If they appear to wear shorts and t-shirts all year, don’t wear a power suit to your interview.
  • Remember that your commonalities are your craft. You will get along with your colleagues because you are passionate about solving the same problems and tackling the same challenges.
  • Also remember that your years of experience are an asset. Even in an unrelated field, you have spent the time to hone your soft skills like communication, negotiation, public speaking, pretending to be interested in something that’s boring, etc.
  • Don’t try to be someone other than yourself. Don’t use a photo from 20 years ago. Don’t buy a rare pair of Air Jordans for your interview. Feeling self-conscious about being yourself will probably not help you get the job.
  • Lastly, but most importantly: don’t seek out roles where you know the culture is not for you. Where the job market supports it, seek out the same role at an organization where you feel better aligned.

As Colleagues:

  • Be open-minded about working with team members from all age groups and all different walks of life, and spread that philosophy at any opportunity. In a diverse team, you’ll learn something different and unexpected every day.
  • When planning activities and lunches, consider whether it will be inclusive or whether you’re just perpetuating an ageist clique.
  • Refer and provide recommendations for people in your network who have lots of work experience but are new to digital. Make age disappear on their LinkedIn.

What Do You Think?

So what do you think? Is age bias something that is impacting our industry and constraining opportunities for great work to surface? Or is it just the age-old (no pun intended) generational tension between digital natives and digital immigrants?

What other kinds of discrimination have you experienced that we need to be cognizant of and deliberate about addressing in our jobs day-to-day? Let us know in the comments!

And if you’re interested in how others have been tackling this in their roles as digital professionals, team leaders, business owners, and freelancers consider becoming a member of our community. We’re having this exact conversation in our Member Forum along with hundreds of other topics. Learn more about DPM Membership here.

By Galen Low

I am a digital project management nerd, a cultivator of highly collaborative teams, and an impulsive sharer of knowledge. For the past decade, I've been shaping and delivering human-centered digital transformation initiatives in government, healthcare, transit, and retail. I'm also the co-founder of The Digital Project Manager and host of The DPM Podcast.

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