In response to my last column, in which I suggested there's a big difference between employer age discrimination and employees' failure to keep their skills current, I heard from quite a few readers who insisted I was missing the point. Their prevailing viewpoint: There's an "open secret" that big companies tailor their hiring and layoff practices to replace senior IT staffers with less expensive ones, irrespective of the talent they're losing.
My response to them: If that's the case at your company or organization -- if, as you say, your employer is idiotic and dysfunctional -- why would you want to continue to work there? Even if you don't get laid off, run. Run fast.
Again, I want to make it very clear that there's a world of difference between doing thoughtful cost cutting and dealing with employee inertia, and engaging in ageism to make the books look better.
Business environments legitimately change, and organizations have no choice but to adapt. For example, most data centers used to have "operators" who would change paper on massive line printers, change job tapes -- things that are no longer needed. Are those operators still employed? No, not unless they updated their skills. Good employers will help transition those folks humanely or attrition those jobs out. Organizations that don't are at a competitive disadvantage against those that do.
But what about those IT employers that actively engage in slash-and-burn age discrimination? The data suggests they're very much out there.
UC-Davis professor Norm Matloff, a critic of the U.S. H-1B visa program, says in his newsletter that he sees a pattern in Silicon Valley in particular: "Limit hiring to new or recent graduates, freezing out the people over 35, and then claim there is a 'shortage.' Once again, the young are cheaper, both in salary and benefits, so the driver here is money. … Of course, H-1B directly ties into this. The data show that most of the H-1Bs are young, especially true in the computer field."
Another critic, Rochester Institute of Technology professor Ron Hira, says that more than two-thirds of employer H-1B petitions in fiscal year 2011 (the latest year for which there's data) were for workers age 25 to 34. Only 9.8% of petitions were for workers 40 and older.
The IEEE has tracked member employment since at least 1999, and at least from a perception standpoint, age has ranked No. 1 in "barriers to re-employment." That survey finding is easy to shrug off, but the objective data shows that across professions, for each additional year of age the delay between unemployment and re-employment increases.
Given the evidence, I can't disagree with my friend and tech colleague who said: "Smart older workers should not count on the loyalty of anyone around them. It doesn't exist. You should have your eye on the next thing you want to do, and be ready to pull the trigger at any time."
In my last column, I wrote that if you've had a rich, accomplished career and you've kept your skill set sharp, there's more work to be had and done. One snarky reader replied: "Yeah, move to India."
Really? So you're saying on one hand that you're expert, skilled and motivated? But on the other hand, you're saying there's nowhere else in the U.S. for you to contribute value and get paid for it? Perhaps you're not looking beyond the big, idiotic IT employers. It's time to take a look at small and midsize companies, those that are growing quickly and whose business practices aren't steeped in generations of dysfunction and shortsightedness.
Bruce Nussbaum, professor of innovation and design at Parsons, recently echoed that sentiment in Wired magazine when he said that companies less than five years old "have been responsible for all the net new jobs in the United States for the past three decades." Nussbaum touts the benefits of what calls "Indie Capitalism," where startups are leveraging the Internet and innovation best practices to capture big slices of markets. So don't tell me there's nothing out there ... unless you've got "I will work only for the people who don't want me" tunnel vision.
Which brings me to the bigger point: Don't complain about things you really can't change. Older IT pros talk about unfair H1-B visa regulations and ineffective age discrimination laws, but those kinds of issues are what the late Jerry Sternin, former director of Save The Children in Vietnam, would have called TBU: true, but useless. In the same way that Sternin made a massive difference with Vietnam's malnourished kids without solving the root problems of poverty, unsafe water supplies and poor sanitation, you need to think about how you're going to improve your personal lot without having to wait for the root problems to be solved.