Ageism might be a taboo topic among employers, but veteran IT pros say it's very much an industry reality.
Other IT pros in their 50s and 60s agree that age is an evident -- if unspoken -- factor, especially when on the job market.
Michael Meyers-Jouan, 65, was laid off four times in the past 10 years. "I found it harder and harder to get a job after each layoff," he said via email. "In general, whenever I got an explanation of my rejection after an interview, I was told I 'didn't have enough energy.' "
Meyers-Jouan acknowledged that compensation was sometimes an issue -- he sought a salary commensurate with his four decades of IT experience. He also acknowledged that his current skill set, which includes the likes of .NET, Visual Basic, C#, and SQL Server, had a visible blind spot: web development. "I wasn't able to offer one of the areas that many -- most -- employers want," Meyers-Jouan said. "Occasionally I found employers who said they were willing to give me the opportunity to learn about that area on the job, but even those employers ultimately rejected me."
The MIT graduate eventually opted to retire, but that wasn't his first choice. "I would have continued working for at least another five years if it weren't for the constant rejection, which was as much about my age as it was about my skill set," Meyers-Jouan said.
Retirement wasn't an option for Ken Bodnar, 57, who lost his job as chief technology officer of a money transfer and pre-paid debit card firm during the recent recession. His age, coupled with the shoddy post-financial crisis economy, became an instant issue.
"I had neckties that were older than the people interviewing me," Bodnar said in an email. "I was in technology, and technology is a young person's game."
Even after downsizing his expectations -- Bodnar said he was willing to take on lower-level positions to get back on someone's payroll -- interviews went nowhere.
"There was very, very subtle age discrimination. After an initial interview, I was told by the interviewer that they had a particular culture and they were looking for a specific fit," Bodnar said. "This culture consisted of Nerf gun wars and a beer cooler in the lunchroom."
One weeding tactic, Bodnar said, was for employers to ask about experience with newer technologies such as Ruby on Rails or MongoDB -- even though those skills weren't part of the job requirements. Bodnar eventually wrote and self-published a book about the experience, 55 And Scared Sh*tless. It's as much a cautionary personal finance tale as IT career manual; Bodnar freely shares that he'd lived beyond his means and saved almost nothing, which compounded his problems after he lost his job. It details his self-described reinvention, which involved abandoning his search for a full-time job in favor of "micro-jobbing" or "job-chunking" -- akin to short-term freelance or consulting gigs -- as well as seeking passive income opportunities.
"Oftentimes these were the drudge jobs in projects, but they paid well because they required my knowledge base. In other instances, my superior experience prevailed over the abilities of the acne crowd," Bodnar said, adding that the need for such work is more common among smaller companies with fewer in-house resources. "The benefits to the people hiring me [were] that they didn't have to keep me around at a high salary after the need was gone. I wouldn't be a burden on their employee benefits program, and they didn't have to worry about team dynamics and age diversity."
In Bodnar's view, the "micro-jobbing" or consulting path is the future of work for many people, in particular, older IT pros struggling on the job market. In his case, the shift was a success. Once his income stabilized, Bodnar began taking on equity in lieu of cash for some projects. As a result, he's now CTO of SelectBidder.com and a stakeholder in a data privacy and cloud storage company in the Bahamas, where Bodnar now lives. "This whole very negative experience has a positive side," he said. "I have my mojo back."
Hard data on age-related discrimination in IT are elusive; employers aren't exactly keen to publicize the practice. Anecdotal evidence, on the other hand, is not so hard to come by. Huckabone, the Detroit programmer, said it's a topic of conversation among fellow IT veterans. "It definitely comes up in shop talk, and I believe it's very real from what I hear," he said. "People have stories."
Industry association CompTIA doesn't track IT employment data based on age. But information compiled by its research team, based on Bureau of Labor statistics, offers an age-based breakdown of roughly 4.6 million IT positions in the U.S. The 25 to 34 age group accounts for 26.4 percent of those jobs; the 35 to 44 age group accounts for 29.7 percent; the 45 to 54 age group accounts for 23.7 percent; and the 55 to 64 age group accounts for 12.4 percent.
Ageism may be more prevalent in IT than in other fields, too. "The overall consensus from the legal community is that the IT industry does seem to have an overall higher incidence of claims of age discrimination," said Monrae L. English, an attorney with the firm Wild, Carter & Tipton.
English said the issue typically stems from problems of perception. For example, the common notion that older IT pros are more likely to have outdated skills is often wrong. "In fact, most of my cases have clearly shown that an older employee may actually have more depth and understanding of the IT world," English said. "One of my clients was actually a former hacker from the 70s, and while some of the kids who were coming in understood the latest fad software, my older employee had the ability to grasp any kind of software out there and run circles around the younger employees."
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