Myth busted: Older workers are just as tech-savvy

Tech employees over age 55 are actually less stressed using technology in the workplace, and better at using multiple devices than their younger peers.

Image: iStockphoto/monkeybusinessimages

We’ve seen them in movies for years: The bumbling, out-of-touch older person at the office who just can’t figure out how to turn on a computer or send a text. Contrary to this pervasive stereotype, a recent Dropbox survey of more than 4,000 IT workers found that people over age 55 are actually less likely than their younger colleagues to find using tech in the workplace stressful.

On average, people 55 and up used 4.9 forms of technology per week, compared to the overall average of 4.7 per week, the survey found. Only 13% of respondents aged 55 and older reported having trouble working with multiple devices, compared to 37% of 18-to-34-year olds.

Despite their evident tech skills, workers in all age groups tended to believe that older workers were slower to adopt new technology, with 59% of 18-34 year olds reporting feeling this way.

“It’s dangerous for companies to assume that if you’re under 35, you’re tech savvy,” said Paul Bernard, an executive coach and regular contributor to Next Avenue, a website for 50-plus-year-olds. “In many cases, I’ve seen that many older people are able to combine tech-savvy with communication skills—almost without exception, it’s easier for older workers to pick up more tech skills than younger workers, who are tech savvy, to pick up communication skills.”

SEE: No place for the old? Is software development a young person’s game?

Federal law states that it is illegal for employers to discriminate against employees aged 40 or older, based on age. Yet, age-related issues represent a growing number of complaints filed at the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Between 1997 and 2007, there were between 16,000 and 19,000 annual filings. Since 2008, the number of complaints grew to 23,000 to 25,000 per year.

“There is a significant amount of age discrimination in most companies,” Bernard said. Besides assumptions about technology skills, companies often make judgements about an older person’s energy levels, dedication, and focus, he added.

A young industry

It’s no secret that the tech industry skews young: The median age of Facebook employees in 2014 was 29; at Amazon and Google, it was 30. Meanwhile, the median age of all American workers is 42. Investors reported that they prefer startups run by people under 40. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg once famously said: “Young people are just smarter.”

 “Silicon Valley is not full of 60 year olds,” said Helen Dennis, a specialist in aging, employment, and retirement. “Part of it is they think older adults are not creative, in touch, or can learn new things, including computer programs. But those are myths.”

There is also a misconception that only one work style can lead to progress for a company, Dennis said. “We have an image of Silicon Valley involving 20-year-olds working until 3 am and eating pizza on paper plates,” she added. “That’s not the image we have of older adults, who may be able to get to the solution faster, but in a different work style.”

The tech field’s problem is also one of cost, according to Norm Matloff, professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis who studied hiring patterns in technology.

“Older job applicants are viewed as too expensive, and thus are often automatically rejected,” Matloff said. “Some employers do claim that the older ones are rejected due to not having up-to-date skills, but I have found that that is generally just an excuse, and that most older tech workers do have modern skill sets.”

Tips for employers and job hunters

To combat stereotypes, older adults on the job hunt must explicitly state their technology skills on their resumes and cover letters, said Tracy L. Mitzner, senior research scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology School of Psychology. They should also highlight the knowledge and skills they have acquired over time to show their added value, she said.

Older workers can be extremely useful for startups going through growing pains, Bernard said, as they tend to have more experience with structure and workflow, and can market themselves in this way.

For employers looking to hire, a best practice is to evaluate each case individually, said Dennis. Do not make assumptions that because someone has been in the field for a number of years that they are not motivated or creative, she added. However, the process should still be as objective as possible: If a 22 year old has a new programming skill required for the job, they should get it over an older person who does not have the skill.

“We’re talking about equity,” Dennis said. “Don’t sell an older adult short—they can often get to the solution faster because they have more experience.”

If a manager is going to integrate older and younger people on the same team, there needs to be education on both ends to gain all of the benefits of a multigenerational workforce, Dennis added.

Companies can also attract a wider age range of applicants and avoid discrimination claims by replacing common job posting terms like “new grad” or “recent grad” with terms such as “entry-level position,” according to government regulators.

“The older adult demographic is rapidly growing—this is a consumer base that technology companies should not want to exclude,” Mitzner said. “By including older adults in their workforce, companies are more likely to have the insights to target the older adult population as consumers.”

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Despite common stereotypes about older people and technology, a new survey found that IT workers over age 55 are actually less stressed using technology in the workplace than their younger peers, and they are better at using multiple devices at work.
  2. The tech industry skews young in age, due to stereotypes that older people are not creative, cannot learn new things, or are too costly to hire.
  3. Older adults looking for a new job in tech should make sure that they specifically state their tech skills in their application. Companies hiring new workers should be aware of age discrimination and try to evaluate all candidates objectively in order to get a diverse workforce.