The Brutality of Ageism – Has it Caught You Yet?

I recently hit the big 6-7! Yep, I’m 67.

During the Woodstock era, layoffs were handled by reverse seniority. It was last in, first out, so the more senior workers kept their jobs. The argument being they were more capable, had more experience and know-how, done it before, etc. Today, we see a transition to age discrimination, as newer workers are allowed to stay on while more costly, older workers are let go.

I was WFR in February. I was the oldest in our group. Matter of fact, they laid everyone off that was in their 60s, keeping one 60+ as a token.

Age, particularly acute in the tech industry, is the silent career killer. While companies openly wrestle with the lack of racial and gender diversity, they typically refuse to disclose the average age of their workers. In 2016, the median age of an American worker was 42. Yet at FAANG-type companies – Facebook it’s 29, Apple 31, Amazon 30 and Microsoft 33, Google 30, according to research firm PayScale.

What do you see when you look at The Boring Figure below?


A young recent graduate FAANG-type employee, or an experienced seasoned programmer? This illustration is an accurate representation of the ageism phenomena because the two different images are interpenetrating one another with no formal dividing line. In other words, when (notice, it’s ‘when’, not ‘what’) is it exactly, that someone crosses the age-discrimination line?

As the Boring Figure illustrates, there is no formal dividing line. You won’t realize you’ve crossed it until…well, you’ve been cut loose, or didn’t get offered the position you interviewed for.

Job applicants in their 40s and 50s shave years from their LinkedIn profiles and resumes by truncating their job histories to appear younger and improve their marketability in the age-conscious tech industry. We’ve all done it.

Online Applications

If you’ve filled out an online application recently, you’ve noticed in the ‘optional’ sections of a typical application, they ask questions around:

  1. What is your gender?
  2. Do you identify with LGBT / Two Spirit Community?
  3. Do you consider yourself to be an indigenous or aboriginal person?
  4. Do you consider yourself to be a member of a visible minority group? Should ‘hair color’ be listed? It’s visible.
  5. Do you have any disabilities? You actually have to sign and date your response for this one.
  6. What is your race / ethnicity? Two or more? I filled out one online application for a multinational, and this question ONLY applied if you were in the U.S.
  7. Hispanic or Latino?
  8. Do you identify with one of the protected veteran groups?

Many of these online applications come with a disclaimer like “…is an Equal Opportunity Employer, and we hire, promote, and reward employees without regard to any difference unrelated to performance.” Don’t these disclaimers imply there is no right or wrong answer? In other words, they’ll accept you regardless.

Notice the one question they never ask: “How old are you?” Car rental companies and airlines asked you when booking a rental or a ticket. Why not job applications? Of course, whether you answer or not would be completely voluntary. Yep…

Since when is a person’s ‘age’ not considered ‘equal opportunity’ and / or diversity?

Look at the 1888 German postcard, “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law”. What do you see?


di·ver·si·ty (dəˈvərsədē, dīˈvərsədē) noun, the state of being diverse; variety. a range of different things.

Age discrimination accounts for nearly a quarter of the overall complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which also pursues charges of discrimination against a job applicant or employee on the basis of a person’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability or genetic information.

Even as the work force has a larger and larger number of older employees, one of the principal tools to fight such discrimination, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act — which Congress passed a half-century ago — may not be up to the task. Based on a 2009 Supreme Court ruling, proving age discrimination became more difficult legally. Plaintiffs have to prove that age discrimination was the prime, or motivating, reason for demotion or dismissal.

When compared to your gender, visible minority group, disability, or race, how do you prove age discrimination one way or another? You don’t! Just look at the below illustration “Husband and Father-in-Law”. Age discrimination is in the eye of the beholder. Who’s the beholder? The company you work for, or the company you interviewed with.


I give it up to Bearing Point. They are at least honest and ask your birthday on their online application.

Older Workers are Deadwood

Comments like these don’t carry the same stigma as remarking about someone’s sex or race. “Diversity of experience and thought is critical for any organization, industry or society to thrive,” says Todd Thibodeaux, CEO of CompTIA. “Tech will have a projected shortage of 1.8 million workers by 2024. Older, re-trained workers, women and people of color need to be part of the future of tech.”

Imagine, if you were born in the 1990s, you may be too old by 2024. Gives you dry mouth, doesn’t it?

Recruiting agencies, for example, are using automation to screen out applicants over 40 without questioning their age. They assume you won’t work hard, long hours, and have out-of-date skills. Silicon Valley employees, are getting older and staying in the workforce longer yet ageist comments increasingly are being directed at younger and younger workers deemed “too old.” It used to be workers in their 40s were treated as over-the-hill; today, it’s employees in their mid-30s.

Most company websites have employee pictures that insure inclusiveness – Hispanic, Asian, black, white, brown, men and women. But very rarely a person with gray hair (OK there, I said it…).

How many people, would you estimate, are available simply because they are in their late 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, or 70s, and undervalued? The movie Moneyball is the story of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane who attempted to build a winning team by using mathematical rigor to find and hire undervalued players.

Goldman Sacks plans to begin using a personality test as part of its hiring process to figure out what makes prospective candidates in the industry tick. They are trying to figure out what makes great traders great. Does it make sense for firms to develop a standardized assessment tool that results in casting a net over a larger section of the population? Aren’t they hiring performance, rather than segmentation?

Warning Signs

  • On your annual performance review, you’ve been moved down from “exceeds expectations” to “meets expectations” for no apparent reason.
  • You or your spouse have had a serious (e.g. expensive) medical condition recently.
  • You’ve been rewarded for your success, and therefore, make more than most everyone in your group or on your team
  • A marked acceleration in requests for you to ‘cross-train’ younger members of the team
  • Quickened implementation of the off-shoring model
  • Re-engineering / consolidation of job titles, groupings, and pay structures by HR
  • Increased focus on hard-to-measure skills such as leadership, communication, interpersonal
  • Discharged co-workers are never allowed to re-apply

You Cannot Hide Your Age from the Onsite Interview

Have you ever nailed a succession of phone interviews, moving the process forward until you are invited for an onsite interview? Once onsite, that interview goes smoothly, only to hear back from the HR recruiter that they were looking for someone with expertise with a completely different set of skills – skills not listed in the job posting nor highlighted in your CV.

This happened to me a couple months ago. I was interviewing for an ‘application modernization’ position at a major consultancy. During three phone interviews, I was asked to role played, envision the future, to cover specifics of how to access a large portfolio of applications and then gap that assessment to a perceived future state. The feedback couldn’t have been better. Then came the onsite interview. Once again, I discussed application modernization in detail, drilling deep into areas such as operational TCO models and a vision of maturity models, etc. Wait for it…

Then came the feedback from the recruiter a few days later, “They are looking for someone who can articulate a vision for how CMDM, monitoring, and ITSM tools can improve IT.” Say, what? My initial thought was, “that’s not the position I interviewed for.”

It’s alright to fall into various ethnicity groups like in the illustration, “Indian Chief/ Eskimo” or LGBT in “Mother, Father, Daughter”.


But, ‘too old’?

“Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were.

Old man look at my life, 24 and there’s so much more…”

“Old Man” by Neil Young

(Released when he was only 26)

If you look at my profile and see anything resembling yourself, you may be in trouble. What is in your resume that says, “I’m 35+ years old?” Unfortunately, it does make a difference.


Trust me when I say, “I’m still the same guy…”

See you in the future…

Frank Wood

Executive Transformation Advisor


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