Why do tech companies favour youth over experience?
Diversity in the tech industry is something we’ve visited often on Alphr. Women are poorly represented in technology, as are minorities – but while white men continue to get all the advantages (and I say that as a hereditary member of that particular club), one thing ultimately strips away those advantages: the unstoppable march of time.
There’s no stopping ageing (yet), and the numbers suggest that no amount of anti-discrimination legislation can deter from the trend. Anecdotally, tech companies seem to prefer to hire younger, and the data from Hired’s 2017 “State of Salaries” report seems to confirm it. The site requires transparency from both the candidate in their desired salary, and the companies hiring on the salaries they offer.
With this level of data, Hired data scientist Dr Jessica Kirkpatrick was able to see a steady rise in salaries between the ages of 20 and 50, at which point this dropped off rapidly. “Companies are offering an average of $132,000 for candidates between the ages of 50 and 60, which is about the same salaries as candidates are making ten years younger – presumably with ten years less experience,” she tells me via phone from the company’s office in San Francisco. The difference was even more stark in older categories, but there wasn’t enough data to make it a fair comparison, so it was discarded from the final research.
“Generally as they get older, offers become lower than their preferred salary, and we think there is ageism that we’re seeing in this dataset.”
There are a couple of caveats worth highlighting here. The first is one of relative representation: there are just fewer older candidates using the platform, and so they don’t tend to place as many director-level candidates as other sites might. The second – as the dollar figure might have given away – is that they don’t have UK data. Ironically, this is thanks to UK laws protecting against demographic data being collected – presumably on discrimination grounds.
From what we can tell, though, if the laws are indeed designed to prevent discrimination, we can infer they’re not working here either. “We did look at experience level, which we can assume correlates with age, and we did find that with greater experience, you get an increase and then a decrease as you get much more senior,” Kirkpatrick explains. “But we don’t have a large enough sample of the UK segmentable by age to feel comfortable releasing that data.”
I had spoken to Dr Kirkpatrick before, previously about the gender pay gap with analysis of the company’s database of candidates and employers. The predictable headline there is that women are paid markedly less than their equally experienced male counterparts, even with checks in place to account for time spent on maternity leave. While it might give women some consolation to know that men will get their own form of discrimination later, they’d be wrong to be too smug: it hits women too – and harder. “I have not yet looked at both age and gender, but we know that women who are older have a larger gender pay gap than younger women, and we know that everyone gets paid less when they get older, so it follows that older women get paid even less than younger women.”
So what is going on here? Is it just that younger workers are cheaper? There’s possibly some of that, Kirkpatrick concedes. “In general on our platform, candidates who ask for less money do get more interest from organisations, and some of that is they’re perceived as more for your money,” she agrees. But if it were just a dollars and cents calculation, you’d expect women to be cleaning up on the platform, given the company’s data suggests they tend to ask for less.
On top of that, the world of tech is hardly unique in wishing to keep its costs in orders, and this isn’t something that seems to be universal across the hiring board. “My perception is that in other fields – like in law – having more experience is seen as more valuable and a bigger contribution to an organisation,” Kirkpatrick says. “There’s some scepticism around whether a young person who is fresh out of school can perform as well as someone who has more experience. But in tech it seems to be the other way around.”
Kirkpatrick has another theory, and once again it plays off an assumption: that younger people inherently have more energy and drive than their more experienced rivals. “With the tech industry in general, there does seem to be this perception at every organisation I’ve worked at, that because the startup world is high pressure and you have to work a lot, you need people with a lot of energy,” she explains. “And young people are going to have the stamina to do that, put in the long hours and go above and beyond.
“People are willing to pay off experience and seniority for the idea that somebody maybe has more energy and is a go-getter who will ramp up quickly.”
So, what exactly can an older candidate do to stand out in an industry that seems to fetishise young blood? Kirkpatrick acknowledges that fighting the industry’s ageism is a tough ask, but there are certain things that can be done to confound expectations, at least. “As your career is progressing, try to learn what the new best practices are and evolve to using newer and newer technologies. Don’t stay stagnant with what’s comfortable – evolve what you do,” she says.
“Even if there are other ways that people are biased against you, they can’t at least point to the fact that you’re not up to date with the latest technologies.” To that end, current Hired’s data suggests that the UK has a particular shortage of Ruby and Python developers.
The second suggestion she has is to box a bit more clever with the companies you approach. While she hadn’t run the numbers when we first spoke, it appears that while larger companies still have a salary drop-off for older employees, it’s considerably less sharp than for smaller companies. That makes sense to Kirkpatrick, who had this to say even before she’d run that particular analysis: “We are seeing that some of the larger organisations that started in the first tech boom have an older average age – the Google, Yahoo, Amazon, et cetera, versus the Snapchats or Ubers.
“Try to find an organisation that has been around for longer, and where the experience you have will be valued and utilised more. A scrappy startup really just needs people to build as fast as they can and make the site work and be there at two in the morning if things break. Those aren’t the things that Facebook or Google need, where the problems are more complex but the architecture of the code is much larger. Start opening up to bigger organisations and ones that have been around longer, so your expertise as someone who has been in the field for many years can be utilised.”
That’s sound advice for individuals looking to get the most out of an industry that seems mildly hostile to their added years. How to fix an industry-wide mindset that makes the advice necessary in the first place is a tougher nut to crack.