Ageism is a huge issue in the tech industry. People over 50 are seen as “too slow” to keep up with the fast pace of the industry, they don’t really “get it,” they aren’t willing to push the envelope anymore, they aren’t willing to put in the hours.
Why does it matter?
This is an important topic because everyone gets older.
You can’t deny some of the science around age-related decline. You have more aches and pains, your energy levels are a bit lower, you need to take more breaks.
But let’s not ignore the science around brain development, either. It’s been proven that the human brain is not fully developed until age 25 and some argue that the full extent of mental faculties isn’t available until over age 30. There’s a reason that you aren’t allowed run for president if you are younger than 35. The brain retains its ability to learn and adjust to new ideas and stimuli — a concept called Neuroplasticity — well into your 70s.
Based on my experience teaching a diverse group of students how to make a career change into UX design, any trouble older students had with picking up on the topic of UX had nothing to do with age and everything to do with fear. Once they overcame their fears of not being good enough, the older students who had an aptitude for the field progressed faster than younger students with similar aptitude.
And when it comes to true design thinking, designers over 40 are always better than younger designers — even if the designer starts late in life via a career change.
Why are older designers better than younger designers?
The life experience helps them think more holistically
A big part of design — and creativity in general — is thinking in systems and making unexpected connections. Some of the best designers are not folks from elite universities, but people with very diverse and unusual backgrounds.
When you’re older, you’ve had more time to experience and process the world. If you’ve used that time wisely, you’ve developed an openness and wisdom that is unmatched by any younger designer.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) was a poet, scientist, and author that rose to fame early in his life. However, it wasn’t until a time period from his mid-50s until his late 60s that he entered into one of the most amazing periods of productivity in the history of the human mind. He had accumulated knowledge from a lifetime of studies, as well as a discipline to channel his energy into productive endeavors. Poems, novels, and plays came pouring out of him. He wrote most of Faust, his most well-known work, in this time period. His daily routine was insane: writing in the morning, experiments and scientific observations in the afternoon, and in the evening, discussions with friends about aesthetics, science, and politics. He seemed to be tireless, and to be going through a second youth.
Their diligence and discipline let them progress quickly
Older people are generally more patient and diligent than younger people. They don’t complain when they don’t get what they want. They know how to manage their time and their emotions and their egos aren’t as big. Sure, every once in a while you meet a person under 25 with all of these traits, but you see a higher concentration of people with these traits in people over age 40. All of these traits are very important things you want to have in a good designer.
Older people are generally better communicators and more self-aware
You can learn all of the hard skills surrounding design in less than 5 years. After that, design is primarily a job of talking to people — explaining your design decisions, understanding what people really mean when they say something, making people comfortable enough to open up to you. Without good communication skills, you can’t truly call yourself a designer. These are all traits that older people are generally better at than younger people.
Older designers have greater empathy
Design is all about being able to relate to other people, and research has shown that your capacity for love and empathy increases with age and doesn’t ever decline. I suspect that this has to do with people gaining experience in their life, enduring heartbreaks, disappointments and tragedies, being able to make connections between different subjects, and having seen many people go through similar situations.
If you have greater empathy, you are able to design better solutions for the people you are serving as a designer.
Are there any downsides to working with an older designer?
There are some potential downsides to working with older designers. All of the positives I listed above, assume a person has spent their life developing their awareness, openness, and confidence. Not every person does this. There are plenty of older people who are stubborn, risk-averse, lazy and have no excitement for life. However, chances are that those people were that way when they were in their 20s as well. Old assholes were usually young assholes earlier in life.
Why Tech Really Values Youth
I suspect that one of the real reasons why the tech industry prefers young people is because younger people are more easily exploited.
Someone with over 15 years of work experience knows all of the games that adults play; they know their worth and are better at standing up for themselves. They will not, for example, accept working 80 hours a week for a crap salary and an unreasonable boss that yells at them.
Older is (often) better
The point I’m making is that it’s not a good idea to dismiss someone simply because they are over 50 or made a career change late in life. There are many, many brilliant, intelligent, open-minded designers over 50 out there, who still “got it” and who are not only on top of all of the current trends but also understand the history of the last 30 years.
Unfortunately, we live in a society that prizes athleticism and aesthetic beauty — two traits that peak early in life and fall sharply after that. You may not be able to do backflips and slam dunks when you’re 55, but your ability to think, connect, empathize and create only grows greater as you progress through life. Can you really put a price on that type of knowledge?
Share Your Story
Have you experienced ageism in your career? Have you worked with incredible older people in your career? Tell us about it in the comments.