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Ageism is becoming an issue for me (scripting.com)
100 points by niyazpk on Jan 14, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 67 comments

Ageism is a fact of life and, if you are too young to have felt it yet, wait until you turn 50 (as I did a few years back) - no matter what you do, people type you, they just don't see you in quite the same light as before.

I think this is in part because, as people, we are associational. We inherently relate to what we know. Similis simili gaudet ("like in like rejoices") is the Latin maxim that captures this. And younger people tend to relate to that which is new and exciting to them (this site, of all places, certainly typifies this, as one sees discussions all the time on issues that appeal specifically to the young). The counterpart to this, however, is that those who are younger also tend to be dismissive of the things to which older people relate, things which the older people themselves found new and exciting some years back - these are not just select things, they are the day-to-day things of life: social trends, the heroes we identify with, the people we go out with, the movies we watch, the cultural events that grab us, even the ideas we believe in and the values that we share. In time, for those who are young, such things have "had their day," become faded, and become foreign and distant.

That part is natural and perhaps even unobjectionable. We all become invested in our own generation to some degree and it is natural to relate to the things we grow up with and to believe in them, even if this means "moving on" from older things and from those associated with them.

But youth is also highly prone to lose perspective because, as Aristotle put in many centuries ago in his Rhetoric, the thing that most tends to characterize youth is a (false) sense of invincibility, what he termed in Greek the word we know today as hubris. When one is young, one tends to strut about and there is no room, when one is strutting, for those who are perhaps slower, less aggressive, possibly infirm. Yes, a young person can be kind and gracious and have all the good qualities too. But, at that age, arrogance can all too often be at the forefront. This propensity leads to the negative part of ageism because it types those who are older in ways that are unfair, prejudicial, and, indeed, foolish - when perspective is lost, youth fails to see the self-evident strengths in those who are older (the wisdom, the years of accumulated intelligence, the leadership strength, the wealth of experience, etc.), and this results in a net loss to all.

The reality, then, is that such prejudices tend to be inherent in how we function as human beings. They can be overcome but only by a conscious effort that will not likely affect the mass of people no matter how much the issue is raised in people's consciousness. Of course, that doesn't mean that each of us can't attempt to overcome it in our own lives, and that is the commendable goal we should strive for.

Everything you have said is true and well articulated.

However it is worth noting that this is handled differently within different cultures and even within different fields within one culture. For instance, my step-mother is originally from Korea and she tells me that elder generations are treated with much more respect than they tend to be in America.

In my own observations in America, I have seen a distinct preference for younger employees in fields such as technology. On the other hand, from what I have seen in law, medicine, and intelligence analysis age seems to be less of a factor and the older practitioneers seem to have some advantage in the fact that they have had more time to build seniority.

> younger people tend to relate to that which is new and exciting to them

Although I'm still young (27) ... I'm becoming more and more dismissive of new technologies.

Why? Because my experience tells me when something new is just a rehash of some older concept that sucked. That's why I stayed away from SOAP ... learned about CORBA in college and hated it. That's why I stayed away from ASP.NET ... because I first had the pleasure of working with Rails and with PHP (with my own home-backed framework).

Of course ... I could instantly see the potential in IPhone ... all those portable devices that fit in your pocket, with a GPS, a photo-camera, an Internet connection and a single online store that sells apps ... all of which could lead to interesting stuff like augmented reality ... that's love at first sight.

I also think that it's a bad idea focusing on grokking technologies. Algorithms, data-structures, math ... these are things that will never be deprecated and where experience matters.

Your post reads biased against younger people. I find that the young suffer as much if not more prejudice than those older who are generally more often in position of power.

The young are more likely to just accept it because their entire life, they have been influenced to accept it.

"Respect your elders"

The first half of life's continuum tends to be viewed by those going through it as "up" (so to speak) and the second half as "down," with an inevitable midlife adjustment (crisis, in extreme cases) in between.

This may be half-addled philosophy, or it may be common sense, but I think it is fair to generalize about people in this sort of way and about how this might color their perceptions of age and youth. On the "youth" side of this, you do get a tendency to say, "the world is ours and we can conquer it" in every generation and this tends to lead to a brushing off of those who are not in the same position. Call it what you will and, if "arrogance" is too strong, pick your own word. It is not meant to come across as biased. Bias, I think, manifests itself not when we try to make observations about what we see as attributes of age or youth but rather when we treat the individuals we interact with according to type and not based on their individual worth.

Your point about young people often being unfairly discriminated against is well taken - all too true and essentially the flip side of the ageist coin. The lesson is to treat people fairly as individuals and not arbitrarily according to type.

Inside I think of myself as young.

If you really did, then you wouldn't have even written this post.

Like Dave Winer, I am also 54 and absolutely do not care what anyone else thinks about it.

When I first started out I quickly rose through the enterprise ranks and was never taken seriously because of my age. As a wimpy looking nerd, I had always been underestimated by others and I found a way to use that to my advantage. When the time was right, I would just shoot them between the eyes with the right solution. My young age didn't matter.

Fast forward 30 years. I never notice age discrimination. It may be there, but I simply don't notice it. I think being in IT and in my 50's is a tremendous advantage.

For every issue I have to address, I have that many more instances of experience dealing with something like that. Many more iterations of similar patterns to draw from.

IT is one field where you can actually get better with age. You don't have to run fast or carry heavy loads, but you do have to think nimbly and get things done, both of which get better with lots of practice.

IT is also one field where "what you get done" is more important than "who you are". This is always good news for us hackers and makers, regardless of age, sex, background, or anything else.

I am currently writing the best software of my life, by far. Not just how I'm writing it, but what I'm writing. I have seen so much that I have a natural instinct for what is needed, what works, and how to best go about it. New technologies keep me fresh and engaged. I feel perfectly at home here at hn even though I'm older than most of you. I can't imagine a better place to be, with 21st century technology and 30 years experience!

To me it's odd that someone as accomplished as Dave Winer doesn't feel the same way. Then again, maybe it's just state of mind.

My grandmother taught me one of the most important lessons of my life, "If you look hard enough for trouble, you'll probably find it."

There is negativity everywhere, about ageism and a million other things. The secret is that it's only data to process as you choose. I have decided to ignore it and continue to do what I love and love what I do. I suspect that Dave should as well.

Like Dave Winer, I am also 54 and absolutely do not care what anyone else thinks about it.

Perhaps that explains why you are also less likely to perceive it when it happens. Perhaps Dave Winer is more sensitive to this issue and that explains why he notices it more. I doubt that he is imagining this since you are one of the few people in IT that I have heard having a contrary experience. Perhaps you are simply an outlier.

I am guessing it could have a lot to do with the fact that Dave Winer is known to be a bit of a crank! He's historically gotten into a lot of ugly arguments, regardless of his age.

It seems crazy to me now, but I worried most about ageism when I was around 38. I had just started a job in the Bay Area where almost everybody else was in their early twenties. To the extent that there was a problem, it was all in my head.

I am now 46, I have a much better perspective on it, and I don't think about it at all. I suppose it is possible that I have been discriminated against during job searches, but I've got plenty of more important things to worry about.

Well, age discrimination tends to become a personal issue when a person can be effected by it. Age is naturally only one factor in this.

If you happen to be in situation where age discrimination can't effect you, well, that's great.

If you think that's an excuse not to consider it as an important social issue, well, that's lousy.

I guess I think that it is not a social issue for me, and it's up to others to make their own interpretations.

I think there are a lot of disadvantages that could drag you down: you're losing your hair, you're short, you're ugly, your parents put you through a rotten childhood, and so on. But you can always find examples of people who have those same disadvantages and are thriving anyway.

I knew this girl once who thought she was ugly. She mentioned that it goes beyond mere social conditioning, that even newborn babies react more favorably to pretty people. So I said: who would a newborn react more favorably to, a pretty stranger or her own homely mother?

If I am facing some type of disadvantage, I am always going to be looking for a way to stack the deck in my favor to get around it.

For every issue I have to address, I have that many more instances of experience dealing with something like that. Many more iterations of similar patterns to draw from.

I wholeheartedly agree. I'm 43, and have worked in IT for about 20 years. Even in that span of time I've seen the same ideas gain popularity, fade, then return again (under another name, or in newer packaging, but fundamentally the same old concepts). Gives you a lot of perspective to be able to avoid getting caught up in the breathless enthusiasm of younger people returning from the latest conference or trade show.

Agreed. Of course, the ageism's definitely out there; if you're able to ignore it, good on you. What I can say, though, is that I've learned a hell of a lot more from older programmers than I ever have from younger ones.

>"I think being in IT and in my 50's is a tremendous advantage."

I believe you, but can't help but wonder if you find that potential employers see it this way as well?

Some companies (Facebook comes to mind..) are reluctant to even hire people in their 30s, as they are not as receptive to "free pizza/code till 10pm" working style. Once you've reached the kids & mortgage stage, unless you're a genius or an executive, your choices are severely limited as far as startups go.

That's definitely true. I see that as corporate culture though: if your culture is such that you work all the time, then we aren't a good fit for each other. I like spending time with my family.

> To me it's odd that someone as accomplished as Dave Winer doesn't feel the same way. Then again, maybe it's just state of mind

Keep in mind that Winer doesn't seem to be talking about ageism that's directly aimed at him. His examples are public figures and general cultural attitudes.

I don't think it's the age, but Winer is out of touch on a lot of issues. His primary computing time is in a scripting language / environment that he built in the early 90s. Much like RMS, he has missed the train and while still has important ideas is frequently only able to implement them in a way that few others can experience.

That and his new found mobile passion is just hilarious to witness. Confused about SMS and MMS (which he called multimedia SMS), unaware of the differences between GSM and CDMA, etc etc. He may not be gramps yet, but if he's looking to duck the title he should stop writing about mobile.

This isn't really new. He's always been a bit fuzzy on technologies; neither RSS nor XML-RPC really show a deep understanding of XML, the scripting environment which I became deeply familiar with in college was always a bit weird about some of the fundamentals, etc. On the other hand, his resume blows mine away; his list of truly independent inventions may not be very long but the list of technologies that he is basically the reason they are popular is. I have found it more educational to think about why that is than to be dismissive because he doesn't always have a precise understanding of everything. Who does, after all? He's got a lot of GetItDoneness, even if his technical skills aren't always the absolute best.

He's got a lot of GetItDoneness, even if his technical skills aren't always the absolute best.

9 times out of 10 I'd take the former over the latter...

Yeah, it's not that people think he's clueless because he's old. People think he's clueless because he's clueless, and has been writing posts that makes no sense with increasing frequency. This feels like an excuse.

It actually seems more polite to say "Dave doesn't grok new tech because he's getting old" than to say "Dave refuses to grok new tech".

Until I grew a beard I was getting reverse ageism at job interviews. Despite 10 years of programming experience, companies were telling me they wanted someone more "senior".

Who knows, maybe that was just an excuse. But the beard seems to have helped.

Beards are cool anyway. What else could you twirl while thinking about a problem?

A pen always worked for me.

Evil black mustache?

It's an execuse so they can higher you for less money.

What types of companies were you interviewing at? I've really never seen anything but ageism in the favor of younger people.

That's really strange. When I was just out of college no one took my work experience during college seriously, they all treated me like I was a clean slate even though I had about three years of part-time experience with two full-time summers. I was constantly told, when I actually got feedback, that I was too inexperienced. I was applying for entry-level positions, which these days means you need 1-2 years experience. If I didn't have any work experience at all I don't think I'd ever be able to get a job except perhaps as helpdesk or PC tech.

Somehow I doubt everyone else was treated like a prodigal son when they were younger and my experience was just bad luck or poor preparation. When this was happening in 2007, I was able to get about 20 interviews that only ever amounted to 2 job offers.

I had this same experience. I am just glad someone took the chance on me, and has given me the opportunity to get experience.

Although my situation was somewhat complicated - applying for entry level project management work and having a philosophy degree.

You're probably not a talented sales person. You had 2 years equiv. experience, and should have pitched yourself that way.

This may happen when the interviewer is younger than you -- young inexperienced managers are often underconfident and they just don't feel comfortable interviewing people older and more experienced than themselves.

I started hiring people when I was 26 (now 37), and I can tell from my own experience than my first attempts of interviewing people older than myself were quite uncomfortable -- so it's not surprising that I tended to avoid such applicants.

I've honestly see people directly state the bias when filtering resumes: Old engineers are usually BAD. The company I heard that at was only 4 people so the age discrimination law probably doesn't even apply, but I was flabbergasted to see someone literally say something like that.

One was a consulting company, and the other person to tell me that was a recruiter as a reason for not submitting me for a job i.e., "they're looking for someone more senior"

See, that's actually quite interesting. Both of those live and die by their reputation, and for both of them, you would have been the "product" - the consultant to send to customers, and the potential recruit to present to companies.

As a self-employed consultant I have found that some people get nervous when they find out my age (25, started when I was 23) - presumably because consultants are selling their expertise and judgment to someone who lacks the skills or confidence, else they wouldn't need you. Confidence is a big part of what you're selling. Nobody gives a shit if the 3D engine in a game is written by a 18 year old genius living with his parents, but you're less likely to present him to enterprise customers. Hiring grey-haired sages oozing confidence probably makes business sense for consulting companies - skill may well be secondary; besides, measuring performance is notoriously difficult in the first place.

Similarly, the recruiter may not have been terribly confident themselves and were looking for a proxy who would project confidence.

Very interesting points. You could be right.

I'm sure there are 'ageists' out there but given Dave Winer's lengthy and well-documented history of what can only be described as a persecution complex, it's difficult to take this very seriously. The man has been beset on all sides by everyone from Google to business partners to conference speakers deliberately trying to give him a heart attack.

He makes a good point, but his neutral fa├žade crumbles a bit when he says:

Not only that we have a lot more money than you and we know a lot more too.

I think of people as whatever age they act and I think Dave is a curmudgeon a lot of the time who believes his age gives him special rights to press his ideas on other people. I wouldn't discriminate or put down his abilities because of it (heck, in many ways he's a genius) but his behavior doesn't go far to help people in general treat him objectively.

There's a reason people are more comfortable about insulting people based on age: everyone either has been or will be a member of the class they're criticizing. People who want to complain about a group without getting in trouble seem to often try to position themselves as part of or close to the group before complaining about the group.

"My girlfriend or wife is [group], and I can tell you..."

"I was in a gang when I was a young man, and let me tell you..."

"My brother is an IT guy, and so I can say that..."

With age-related remarks, no one needs to even posture. There's an implicit "...and I can say this because I'm one of them, or will be".

"There's a reason people are more comfortable about insulting people based on age: everyone either has been or will be a member of the class they're criticizing. "

Just the opposite: most people can't really see themselves as old, and like to think that as they age they'll still somehow stay cool and hip and up-to-date, not like those creepy Readers Digest AARP people.

I've yet to meet anyone who didn't say, Wow I can't believe I'm(40|50|60|...).

You realize, intellectually, that it will happen, but it never seems quite real until you are there.

"Bring up ageism and out comes it comes -- it's the one insult that's considered socially acceptable."

That and politics. I'm absolutely amazed at the hateful language that friends and talking heads use for people who are "differently politicized."

As for me, I "knew" I was old and irrelevant (or seen as such) the day I answered a telephone poll for local radio stations. The first question was my age, and the next statement was "Thank you for your time <click>."

I was guilty when I was young. The tables have turned, and I try not to let it bother me now, although it sometimes does.

> "Bring up ageism and out comes it comes -- it's the one insult that's considered socially acceptable."

> That and politics

and weight, and attractiveness, and "white trash" / rednecks, and ...

Not to mention that there's still an awful lot of racism and sexism around. Just look at how much TV comedy is built almost entirely on gender stereotypes.

From one of Dave's responses in the comments:

Next time you think a 54-year-old is washed up, remember what you just said.

Not only that we have a lot more money than you and we know a lot more too. :-)

I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that smiley meant he was being ironic, but it was still too funny to not point out.

Based on the fact that he can still get so offended by something like this, unlike edw519 in this HN thread (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1052618), it seems Dave hasn't reached his full cognitive maturity as of yet (not to mention that elsewhere in the comments Dave admits that he is unable to enact change or persuade others on any meaningful level). Given this, I'm willing to bet there are at least a few people reading his blog that are younger, have more money, and have more knowledge than him.

Kudos to Dave Winer for successfully navigating Twitter at his age.

Sorry, I couldn't resist ;-)

"I've been seeing a lot more ageism lately.

By ageism, I mean people saying that my age makes me less intelligent, informed, clued, aware, whatever."

Having kids will do that, at least once they get to be 10 or 12.

Wait until children learn how to type with their brainwaves. Then you'll be the old slow guy sitting there with the keyboard because your brain won't do that anymore (a la people raised by wolves)

It always blows my mind that my friends' children are growing up never having known a world without broadband connectivity in your hand, high-def (even 3D!) TV, GPS, manned space stations, buying everything online, and social networking.

If today's young teenagers (my wife's cousins are glued to their phones, sending hundreds of SMSes a week) are any indication, we have a very strange breed coming down the pipe.

Well, but what if it's true?

On the macro scale, I think it's obvious that people are getting smarter. If you compare people now with people 1000 years ago, it is obvious that the average IQ now is higher than it was then. If you compare with people 10k years ago, 100k ago .. no contest. There was a time when calculus was something only the smartest people in the world understood. Now it is a subject routinely taught in high school. All of human progress has been written by young people getting smarter than old people, and proving the old people wrong.

The question then should not be are young people smarter than old people, but is the difference in generational intelligence so great that it is noticeable? I don't know for sure the answer to that, but one has to ask what are the origins of the ageism prejudice in the first place.

Not saying that any kind of discrimination is acceptable, there certainly are highly intelligent, highly competent older people out there. But there are also a bunch of old people who stopped learning anything new 30 years ago, who nevertheless own a lot more stuff than their children and more political power than they deserve to have, and we should be able to recognize that too.

The average IQ is always 100, regardless of the population.

At least, if they make the test the way they're supposed to.

That's really poor reasoning. Whether or not a 20-year-old today is smarter than a 20-year-old in 1900 tells you nothing about whether a 20-year-old today is smarter than a 40-year-old today.

There's always something. I find I have some issues because I'm 44 but everyone at work seems to think I am between 35 and 40. I think it gets my behavior misinterpreted. And I have had people say horribly insensitive things in front of me about how forty is just around the corner for them and "how scary is that?!" and similar. (Someone who knew my age, which is why I feel it is insensitive. And it was a pattern of behavior over a period of months, not a stray remark. Still, I suspect this person just doesn't really think of me as "over 40", even though they know I am, and I think that is part of why they blathered on thoughtlessly in front of me about their negative feelings about their own age.)

I'm still trying to figure out what causes people to perceive me as younger than I am. I find it baffling. But it has happened on the Internet too. So I suspect it is in part behavior-related, not just a looks thing.

Take a look at jazz history if you want to see ageism (and every other -ism, for better or worse) cycle again and again. In the 20's and 30's, the older generation said it was sinful and immoral and why couldn't these kids just go back to good ol' ragtime. (Answer: they just needed to be different but they'd come to their senses sooner or later and enjoy music with real emotion behind it)

Then in the 40's, as bebop began, the older generation said the same thing, except those in the older generation were the ones who had been criticized for playing jazz (ex. Louis Armstrong), but it was still just the younger generation wanting to be different and not having any real emotions. And the older generation has never been 'hep' or 'hip' or 'cool' or 'down' or 'hot' or ...

If you scroll down in the comments to where Lenni posted, and then read that thread, he doesn't seem to realize that ageism works both ways, and in fact holds a few ageist prejudices of his own regarding younger people.

Should we start looking into techniques for keeping the mind and body young? One measure would probably be how quickly you can learn new technologies and methods for getting work done. As I get older, I'm always trying to learn something new and coming up with ideas for solving problems. The last thing I want my employer to think is that I'm only good for maintaining the existing code. Another thing is how well you can relate to younger people and work with them. You can't afford to have them thinking of you as being out of touch with the current tech.

This would tend to confirm the "ageism" that Weiner is talking about. If a young body and mind is a good thing, an old body and mind is not.

I guess the "Ageist" position is that yes, human bodies and brains do decay, but experience and wisdom precisely mitigate this. It seems a little absurd.

I think the ageist position is that experience and wisdom aren't enough to counteract the brain's decline as one ages. So really this is an argument about two things: 1. The rate of cognitive decline and 2. the value of experience. The former varies with each individual and can be mitigated with proper nutrition and exercise. The latter varies depending on the task.

Oh, and in case anyone disputes that cognitive abilities decline with age: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memory_and_aging#Memory_decline...

This is true but we're a lot closer to isolating the nutrients that support memory and delay aging. You can also play "brain games" to stimulate neural activity and develop better memory recall, even with people over 50.

There is a reality to aging, that's just something we can't escape. We can take measures to stay healthy and young in mind. Of course, experience and wisdom are good attributes to have too.

I would suspect that one cause of uneasiness that some people have towards older people is due to the de facto age segregation practiced by much of this society up through the end of college. I know that I personally barely had any experience interacting with people more than a couple years older than me well into my twenties, excepting teachers and parents.

Even once one finally does get exposed to people of all ages, with some people it may take years for this uneasiness to wear off.

People are thinking of Dave Winer as "less intelligent, informed, clued, aware, whatever" because he's Dave Winer, because he can't be "part of an intelligent discussion". The only thing it has to to do with his age is that he's had decades of practice at screwing up technical matters, spoiling communities, and fucking over business partners.

He has a hell of a reputation as an asshole. I don't think anyone besides service employees care that he's old.

What we all seem to agree on is, people of different ages act differently. To the extent generalities can be draw, and to the degree these are used to spot-evaluate someone you've just met (job interview, radio survey etc), this is ageism. It happens because it works, at least 80% of the time. Its unfair because important decisions are made about people (me) with too little information. Yes I'm old, but I actually have kept learning.

When I was younger, I also was discriminated against for being too young. In ANY profession, some one that has spent 10-30 years doing something in an inefficient and incorrect way doesn't like to be told so from a young upstart who figures it out the first week on the job (or in class).

I think there is plenty of pain to go around caused by the inefficiencies of cultural divides.

Advice: go where you are needed and appreciated.

As the young team lead on a team composed of mostly older programmers, I say older programmers pay off. I'm quite happy with their experience. Much less explaining to do. And they know to investigate the hairy bits.

"Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes." --Oscar Wilde

And some comment by David Deutsch on ageism going the other way here: http://www.youthrights.org/final.php

Nothing in here about age discrimination in the IT industry.


The world is different for everyone.

That's what you get when you employ feminists to run the Human Resources department (as in most medium-size tech startups) instead of doing it yourself.

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