Ever since I started covering technology, in the mid-1980s, there’s been a perennial career story in the engineering and IT industry about age bias. Techies who reach a certain age, the story goes, often get laid off and replaced by one of the following, cheaper, alternatives: a) a recent college graduate, b) an immigrant with an H1B visa (often from India) or c) an engineer located offshore (often in India).
Middle-aged U.S. engineers have been howling, and suing, about this for decades. Employers argue that some older engineers just don’t keep up their technology skills. Workers argue that the employer just wants younger employees, who cost less. Just last year, a 54-year-old engineer brought an age-discrimination lawsuit against Google. At the trial, the engineer alleged that, despite good performance reviews, he was told that his opinions were obsolete and out of date. He was called slow, fuzzy, sluggish and an “old fuddy-duddy” by younger colleagues, he alleged. He was replaced with managers 15 to 20 years younger, transferred to a position of less responsibility and ultimately fired.
This is a tough problem, for both the employee and the employer. It’s not fair to be pushed aside when you reach 50, even though you’ve been a loyal employee and done a consistently good job. On the other hand, technology moves fast and the skills needed for particular jobs are changing. In today’s competitive environment, an employer needs to have the sharpest employees with the latest hot skills. And getting them for the least amount of money . . . well – that’s capitalism.
I’ve been on both sides of this problem. In the mid-1990s, when I was in my 30s, I supervised a writer who was in his 50s. We were revamping a magazine, taking it in a new editorial direction, and this employee just couldn’t get it. He seemed unable to produce the kind of work we needed. We worked with him for about a year, but to no avail. So, we fired him.
Today, I’m 51. I’m not as savvy as younger journalists in terms of the latest technology. My skills in using social media, producing multimedia stories or even texting are not as sharp as a 30-year-old’s. Sometimes, I just don’t “get it.”
So, my experience in tech journalism isn’t so different from those engineers. In fact, as technology pervades various types of jobs throughout our economy, the same age-related employment problems about which engineers have long complained will pop up in all sorts of careers. It’s been happening in journalism for a while. Reuters has been outsourcing at least some low-level journalism jobs to India for years. I don’t see many H1B visa-holders replacing U.S. journalists, but I do see plenty of senior editorial staff losing their jobs, although it’s more often because their publication has died than because they are being replaced. And the staff and management of new media companies and online publications? I bet most are in their 20s and early 30s.
In our Internet-flattened world, this will happen to a lot of us boomers. Even lawyers. We have to figure out how to deal with it. My plan is to keep moving up the value chain, doing more sophisticated reporting and writing that requires experience, perspective and in-depth knowledge. At the same time, I try to keep up with the latest developments in the media business and try to incorporate new skills that will keep me relevant in this changing market. I’m lucky to be a freelancer who works primarily by phone and Internet. It means that my employers judge me by my work, not by my age, not by my appearance nor even by my ability to text (at least not yet). To rephrase that iconic New Yorker cartoon, on the Internet nobody knows you’re over 50. I hope I can keep it that way.