Grow up: Ageism in the Ecosystem

Picture the offices of a startup. What do you see? Astroturf on the floor, standing desks, a pool table in the corner? What about the staff – do you see trainers, mullets, slogan t-shirts? What about suits, grey hair, or anyone over 40? Ageism has long been a problem in business and startups are doing little to change it. And everyone’s suffering as a result.

They say age is just a number, but when it comes to getting hired over a certain age, that number is a dwindling percentage. 

A 2020 LinkedIn study found that in startups with 300 staff members or less, only 7.7% were over 45, and 2.4% over 55. Bosses say they want staff with experience, but the hiring rates beg to differ. 

At the same time, VCs’ preferences seem to be skewed to young hotshots, becoming sceptical when founders start going over the hill at the grand age of 32. It’s a bias without basis, because the average age of successful founders is not 25, but 45 (affectionately known as ‘olderpreneurs’).  

Young employers tend to hold perceptions that older people are less energetic, less tech-proficient, and less capable of learning. Less experienced employers can feel threatened by the confidence, knowledge, or natural authority of someone senior, concerned they might try to override their decisions or disrespect their leadership, or awkward about giving instruction to someone the same age as their Dad.

But these pitfalls and personality problems are easily sussed out in an hour-long interview. That same interview will show you the high level of institutional memory and practical knowhow of the 40-year-old candidate sitting in front of you. So that’s no excuse either… unless, of course, you’ve pre-screened your candidates and discounted anyone who graduated before 2005. 

Why are startups ostracising older people? Could it be because culturally, they’re just not cool enough? 

Startups: culprits of ageist culture 

A 22-year-old Mark Zuckerberg said “young people are just smarter”. Now he’s 38, he should probably consider handing the reins of Meta over to a graduate. 

Startups lead the charge of the corporate world in myriad ways. They keep fresh ideas churning, challenge the status quo, champion innovation, diversity, sustainability, “modern” ways of thinking. But they’re the worst offenders when it comes to hiring “olds”, which in the minds of some is anyone over 30. And they don’t have the HR-power to mitigate the issue.

Especially in tech, dev, and engineering roles, there’s a glorification of graduates. The freshness of their education gives them an edge. They “grew up with” technology. And in truth, it is an advantage over someone in their 40s or 50s, considering C and C++ didn’t come along until the mid-eighties, and Javascript wasn’t popular until Facebook and Google deployed it for the backend in the noughties.   

But… does the advantage matter that much? Does it matter whether you learned to code at 14 or 40? 

The answer of course is no. You don’t need to be a programming child prodigy with ten years under your belt by the time you graduate. Anyone can learn to code, and many come to it later in life. Also, unlike many other high-paying fields, you don’t actually need a degree. 

But there are other upsides to the young that are more difficult for employers to ignore.

The blessings of youth

Younger employees are nowhere near retirement age and often far off the family-starting age. They’re competitive in building a career and so more prepared to put in long hours (and put up with more bulls**t). 

The young and impressionable can be moulded. It’s less like they’ll come with bad habits or entrenched ways of thinking. This will especially suit the evangelical startup wanting to recruit like-minded (read: homogenous) people onto their “mission”.

The youth have less experience, they need you in order to gain experience, and now they’re facing a global remote job market where coders in Kolkata will work for a fraction of a Western living wage. So they’re cheap, too.

The curse of youth 

It’s hard to weigh up the pros and cons of entire generations. You can’t tar everyone in the same age group with the same brush (that’s kind of the exact definition of ageism). But we can say younger people are higher-risk based employees on some evidential data. 

  • Millennials are known job-switchers. It’s not because they’re capricious or unreliable, they’ve just seen too much. They’ve lost faith in the labour market and feel that loyalty is no longer rewarded. 
  • The global job market is ready to poach the young. If you hire a 55-year-old, you’ll get 5 years until they retire. But they’re likely to be more grounded – homeowning, married, grown-up children to fund, retirement plan, long term mindset. Plus – what value and experience those 5 years could bring. A 25-year-old has the freedom and opportunity to work anywhere in the world. They could easily decide your startup (or industry, or country) is not for them and leave after 12 months of very expensive recruitment and training.
  • They just don’t know a lot. It’s not meant dismissively – intelligence, education, and willingness to work count for a lot at any age. But a 20-year-old hasn’t lived long. They haven’t yet learned how to navigate corporate environments, developed their soft professional skills, or gained a wizened understanding of how the world works. Because of this, they’ve got much less to go on when it comes to predicting, negotiating, and decision making.

Here’s some more evidential data – the fastest growing startups are led by founders with an average age of 45. There’s no discernible difference in productivity between the young and old. And the workforce is getting older whether we like it or not. By 2050, 4 in 10 of us will be 50 plus. 

How can founders be part of the solution?

This isn’t one where we’re relying on long, drawn out, bureaucratic intervention from the government to instigate change. We as founders and bosses can single-handedly solve it.

  • Look at your language. Job ads sometimes use loaded descriptors without realising it. Terms like ‘energetic’, ‘adaptable’, ‘innovative’, and ‘team player’ can feel exclusionary. Same with the edgier (awful) stuff like ‘hustler’, ‘genius’, ‘rockstar’, ‘works hard, plays hard’. These terms might appeal to young hotshots, but may deter older, more grounded workers who could bring value in other ways (and don’t have time for that sh*t).
  • It’s also where you advertise. Older candidates might not use LinkedIn and so miss out on job opportunities there. Or they might use LinkedIn, but might not be included in the demographics you’re using for targeted ads. They definitely won’t see University job boards (but posting on alumni boards is a good alternative). 
  • Blind hire. Consider implementing an age-positive blind hiring process where you either don’t ask for dates of birth, graduation, or employment; ask someone to cross them out before you review CVs; or use software like Pinpoint to do it for you. It’s just good CSR.

Startups have challenged and disrupted so much about the way we work. By changing our attitudes to age, we can equitise the job market, tap into a neglected pool of highly capable candidates, and tackle unemployment within older generations in one fell swoop. 

And – more selfishly – we can insulate ourselves against that ostracisation when we reach the grand old age of 32.

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