Ideas on combating ageism in the workplace

The technology field has always been considered a field for the young.  Startups look for the bright eyed youth willing to put in 60-80-or more hours a week with the hopes of a grand success and easy future. Those of us who have been through the industry know that’s the exception rather than the rule and wish the kids would listen. 

When your career spans more years than some of your colleagues have been alive, you learn a thing or two.  You’ve seen the management theories come and go.  You’ve seen the latest, greatest project management methodology be adopted like wildfire and dropped just as quickly. You’ve seen technology ideas form, execute, and fade away, only to come back again touted as something completely new (I’m looking at you, thin client computing.) 

The problem is, with the bias in the industry that technology is for the young, there is a natural prejudice against the wisdom and learnings that come from experience. How can we get others to recognize the value of having been through the wringer a few times and knowing how to be prepared? Think about it this way, if you’ve had a 25 year career, you’ve covered the lifespan of five startups. 

I’ve worked with two companies over the years where the average tenure of the staff is more than 15 years a person. The technology groups have seen things change only to stay the same.  They don’t adopt the latest thing that comes down the pike. They don’t jump on the newest methodology. They’re in it for the long haul and their strategy and their people reflect that.

How can we combat this perception that in technology fields experience has less value than youth? The first step for those of us with years under our belt is to recognize this is not a level playing field and that we can’t play by their rules. If we try to out-hustle, out-work, and out-play them to prove we are just as good we’re wasting the strongest asset we have…our experience.

Don’t challenge just because it’s been done before.  Challenge to see if what caused it to not work has been resolved. Don’t argue just because it hasn’t been tried, draw the comparisons to what has been successful and show the steps that need to happen. Recap completed efforts rather than just running into the next one.  Don’t accept minimum viable product because it’s part of the methodology, accept it if it’s delivering the value you know the customer wants from experience.

Taking the role of a mentor for colleagues (not a know-it-all, that’s a different problem) and helping them learn the questions to ask and the skills they need beyond the ones and zeroes demonstrates that experience I’m talking about. The concepts of DQ (digital intelligence) vs. EQ (emotional intelligence) marry nicely to the concept of wisdom. Anyone with motivation can learn a technology. Learning how to read, understand, and adapt to people and personalities only comes from experience.

There’s no easy solution to the problem of ageism in the workplace.  There’s no hashtag we can get behind that will change how things are. (Though #getoffmylawn works for me.) The best thing we can do is to remember we didn’t get where we are over so many years by being distracted by the newest thing. If you know you’re being discriminated against because of your age there are steps you can take, unfortunately it’s not so obvious that it’s easy to document. Be aware, discliplined, and don’t fall for the myth that years are a weakness.

How do you deal with ageism in your workplace? Have you encountered it before? Are you guilty of it? Tell me about it.