Five years ago, at 57, I decided to turn my life of experience in career management into my first software company. Perhaps I was naive, but it didn’t occur to me that I would face ageism or sexism in this new venture. This was the “innovation sector” after all – surely it would be full of progressives? I met many remarkable people who were very supportive, but I also learned that there is a small but pervasive section of tech with a distinctive ‘bro culture’ – who hadn’t really encountered someone of my background before.
At an early funding pitch, I was told outright: “Anne, you need to be 35, male and cutting code to be successful in this business.”
This only made me more determined.
Sure, I didn’t have any skills or experience with writing software. But the resources to kick off a contemporary tech start-up simply didn’t exist 30 years ago, and what I did have was years of subject matter expertise in career management – which is arguably more important for a career management start up than cutting code.
My experience entering the tech sector mirrors what many older workers are experiencing across all industries and, with an ageing workforce, it’s something that needs to be addressed.
There are two sides to this coin. On one hand, sectors like tech must mature in the way they approach age diversity and inclusivity. Many tech guys often start companies having never had a previous job – they are not nuanced in people management. They are more likely to employee people like themselves and are unlikely to understand the value of subject matter knowledge and experience. The aged workforce is not seen as the go-to place for contemporary technical skills.
On the other hand, the aged workforce must take responsibility for ensuring their own relevance and skill sets are maintained. We need to be embarking on lifelong learning because we are all going to be working for many more years than we may have thought – and technology is impacting every aspect of our lives, including our work, so all workers need to be on board and ready to face change. Shifts in the way companies address their workforce challenges mean less security for all workers. We have seen the collapse of the career path and the rise of the gig economy, where short contracts reign and lifelong job security in a single company is a thing of the past.
Every day we read about automation, artificial intelligence and job losses. We’re now starting to hear about “dark warehouses”, where no lighting is required because robots don’t need to see. In a nutshell, if our jobs involve performing repetitive tasks with predictable outcomes … our days are numbered. We can be prepared and equipped though.
It can feel like we have less and less control over the forces that decide whether and how we get to continue working. Yet no one is talking about how individuals can take control of their own careers.
We need to be digitally literate, for older workers this means we can’t be disengaged. The hope that the internet will go away and the world will return to normal is unrealistic, and tedious for our younger co-workers. Organisations want relevant skills including how we communicate, collaborate, transact, problem solve and manage information digitally. If you’re reluctant to get across basic new technology, then you’re disadvantaged.
It’s by workers building these contemporary skills, leaders and workers being prepared to challenge their own mindsets that we can break down ageism. All workers are responsible for our own careers in this new world. Aged workers are not an exception. Aged workers can’t rely on the security and stability they enjoyed when they entered the workforce decades ago. At the same time, with an ageing population, it’s imperative that organisations do not ignore older workers’ experience and value. Mutual success is going to come about by us meeting halfway.
Entering this sector at twice the age of my tech peers has been twice as gruelling, but twice as rewarding. At 62 now, I can say I’ve faced many of the challenges older workers face. I’ve had to learn quickly, adapt and respond to a much faster paced world. It’s a process that’s been enormously testing, but also satisfying, and has given me the opportunity to work with passion, enthusiasm and energy. These are the qualities that live on past the age of 35 when you’re doing what you love.
Anne is a guest on Tuesday’s episode of Insight at 8.30pm on SBS, which explores whether we have reached the age of no retirement. Anne is the founder of PlanDo.