The US economy is showing remarkable health, but in the tech industry, layoffs keep coming. For those out of work, finding a new position can become a full-time job. And in tech—a sector notoriously always looking for the next hot, new thing—some people whose days as fresh-faced coders are long gone say that having decades of experience can feel like a disadvantage.

Ageism is a longtime problem in the tech industry. Database startup RelevantDB went viral in 2021 after it posted a job listing bragging, “We hire old people,” which played off industry stereotypes. In 2020, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that IBM had engaged in age discrimination, pushing out older workers to make room for younger ones. (The company has denied engaging in “systemic age discrimination.”)

A recent LinkedIn ad that shows an older woman unfamiliar with tech jargon saying her son sells invisible clouds triggered a backlash from people who say it unfairly portrayed older people as out of touch. In response, Jim Habig, LinkedIn’s vice president of marketing, says: “This ad didn’t meet our goal to create experiences where all professionals feel welcomed and valued, and we are working to replace the spot.”

Ageism is “an open secret in the tech industry,” says Maureen Clough, host of It Gets Late Early, a podcast about aging in tech. Even when ageism isn’t as blatant as the IBM case, she says, it lurks behind common ideas in industry hiring, such as culture fit. “If you have a company that is predominantly young, white, and male, it’s going to be harder to get in there,” Clough says.

Vern Six, a 58-year-old programmer, says he recently ran into explicit ageism on his job hunt. A recruiter told him that he wouldn’t be appealing to employers and opined that Six should be chief technology officer at this point in his career, not a software developer, Six says.

After Six’s LinkedIn post about that encounter went viral, he created a LinkedIn group for people to discuss ageism in tech. He says he has often thought his age might play a role in job hunting, but “this was the first time I’ve ever had anybody say it directly.”

Industry and government data shows that US tech workers skew younger than the wider US workforce, but definitive data on differences in hiring patterns for older and younger tech workers has been hard to gather. That’s because so many more senior tech workers get jobs by networking or moving between companies where they know people rather than by cold applying, and that’s tricky to study and quantify, says Joanna Lahey, a professor of public policy at Texas A&M University who studies age discrimination.

Older workers may be out of work for longer between jobs because they’re more likely to seek higher salaries or be selective, says Lahey. But if older workers are excluded from some positions because recruiters assume they wouldn’t take a lower offer or position or are perceived as not fitting into the company culture, that’s a problem, she says. “There are a lot of people who have a lot of skills who are unemployed longer than they ought to be. It’s a loss for them, and it’s a loss for society.”

Déjà Vu

Tech companies have laid off more than 400,000 workers over the past two years, according to Layoffs.fyi, which tracks job cuts in the industry. To older workers, the purge is both a reminder of the dotcom bust, and a new frontier. The industry’s generally consistent growth in recent decades as the economy has become more tech-centric means that many more senior workers—which in tech can sometimes be considered to mean over 35 but includes people in their late forties, fifties, or sixties—may have less experience with job hunting.

For decades, tech workers could easily hop between jobs in their networks, often poached by recruiters. And as tech companies boomed during the Covid-19 pandemic’s early days, increased demand for skills gave workers leverage. Now the power has shifted to the employers as companies seek to become efficient and correct that overhiring phase, and applicants are hitting walls. Workers have to network, stay active on LinkedIn, join message boards, and stand out. With four generations now clocking in to work, things can feel crowded.

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