Why won't anyone hire middle-aged geeks?

Is it your fault or theirs?

Employment statistics are providing evidence of a very old bias that often leaves the most experienced IT workers out of luck when technology jobs are scarce, even if their skills are up to par.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment for computer & math professionals aged 55 or older rose from 6 percent to 8.4 percent between 2009 and 2010, while unemployment for those between 25 years of age and 54 years actually dropped – from 5.1 percent to 4.5 percent.

In one sense that's not surprising; one of the major characteristics of the employment market during the past three years was a dramatic shift downward in salaries and benefits, often including the complete elimination of full-time jobs in favor of contract gigs.

What FTEs were left often went to lower-paid workers; younger workers tend to be lower paid, so they tend to get the work.

BLS statistics back up the trend and show it applied across the board, not just in IT.


The IT industry has been pretty consistent about tossing IT workers out the door and leaving them there when they get a little gray.

This article from 2003 reported minor and temporary improvements, but showed age discrimination as a continuing proble during a completely different recession, as did this article from a 1998 study.

Age isn't the only bias; on average women still get a raw deal in IT, especially if they're over 55. Unemployment for women 55 and older rose from 8.9 percent to 9.4 percent.

Minorities also tend to get left out, as outlined in this 1999 paper published by the Computing Research Association which highlights hiring and educational trends that result in an IT workforce that's very, very pale, and not just because they never get outdoors.

What I can't find, and have never heard from anyone in IT I've interviewed, is why.

Current skills are still the main criterion in IT hiring, and why large swathes of people are left out of the job market every year.

In IT, more than in other areas, the speed of technology development means that if you don't keep your skills up to date, your competence can fade away faster than in almost any profession that doesn't involve sports.

But, if his or her skills were up to date – and an awful lot of the 55-and-older geeks I know make sure theirs are, for exactly these reasons – why would someone in that age group be less employable than someone 20 years younger?

Is it an overall youth bias? Is it the salary issue?

Is it a perception that an older geek won't want to be managed by a younger one?

Is it intimidation on the part of the younger ones, who don't want to manage someone who's seen 100 whelps just like them come and go over the years?

You tell me. I don't get it.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

ITWorld DealPost: The best in tech deals and discounts.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon