Documents appearing to show institutional ageism at IBM have been released as part of a lawsuit against the company, which alleges it discriminates against older workers. Although IBM has rejected these claims, the case highlights problematic attitudes to older workers that persist across the IT sector, experts say.
The documents, unsealed on Friday as part of the case of Lohnn vs International Business Machines, which is being heard by a district court in New York, show communications between two executives, in which one “applauds the use of the disparaging term ‘dinobabies’ to describe the older IBM employees” as part of a “plan to oust them from IBM’s workforce”. The court filing says “he describes his plan to ‘accelerate change by inviting the “dinobabies” (new species) to leave’ and make them an ‘Extinct species”.
Both executives, whose names and positions are redacted, have since left IBM, and the company’s chief human resources officer Nickle LaMoreaux said in a statement that “discrimination of any kind is entirely against our culture and who we are at IBM, and there was (and is) no systemic age discrimination at our company.”
But the case, which is being brought by Denise Lohnn, whose husband, Jorgen Lohnn, committed suicide after being laid off by IBM, has resurfaced one of the tech’s sector most persistent dysfunctions.
IBM age discrimination lawsuit: indicative of IT’s wider problem?
IBM has disclosed that the median age of its staff in 2020 was 48, unchanged from 2010. This means its workforce is significantly older than some of its rivals in IT outsourcing such as consultancies like Accenture or Deloitte, says Josh Bersin, founder of Bersin Associates, a research company focused on enterprise learning and talent management.
“The disclosures were pretty surprising,” he adds. “IBM has a long history of reskilling and continuously developing its workforce, and also a history of offering early retirement programs. If these statements are true it’s a sobering story about IBM leadership which may be a wake-up call.”
IT is often viewed as a young person’s profession, with 39% of the 82,000 software developers who responded to Stack Overflow’s 2021 developer survey falling into the 25-34 age bracket, and only 28% coming from older age groups. In the UK, 31% of the overall workforce is over 50, but this proportion falls to just 22% among IT staff, a study released last year by industry body BCS revealed.
This preference for younger generations, exemplified in Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's infamous "young people are just smarter" quote from 2007, comes from the wider misconception that older generations are not willing to learn about new technologies, says Professor Andrea Rosales of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, co-author of a study on ageism in tech which found ageist attitudes exist at IT companies around the world.
As part of her work, Professor Rosales and her colleagues interviewed programmers at small and large companies globally. "The common idea was that older people are not interested in digital technologies or are not good at learning to use new digital technologies," she says.
"This translates into the corporate context in two ways; the programmers, who are mainly male and under-30, say 'the older managers don't understand the power of new technologies'," Rosales says. "And the managers look at the programmers and say 'they are young and enthusiastic and can devote all their time to work'."
Indeed, older workers are often discriminated against because it is perceived that they have other priorities that can act as a distraction from work, Rosales explains. "To be passionate and devoted to your work becomes more complicated when you have young children to take to school or have other family commitments."
Bersin argues the onset of "iterative development" of software and systems has exacerbated the divide between the older and younger members of the tech workforce. "Older workers grew up in a world where it took a long time to build a new technology, so they built it slowly, deliberately, and with a focus on 'perfection' before launch," he says. "Today people build content, systems, and apps in days or weeks and we put them into the market early with the knowledge they can be improved quickly. These types of new approaches – minimally viable products, design thinking, agile – are new to older workers and they have to learn and adopt them."
What can be done about age discrimination in IT?
Professor Rosales believes many organisations need to make changes on a cultural level to avoid ageism. She identifies the asynchronous nature of remote work, which has been adopted by many companies since the Covid-19 pandemic, as a potential problem.
"For older staff, the best time to work may be while their kids are at school, but others may prefer to start at midday and work into the evening," she says. "But you still need to have opportunities to be social and interact with other people. Companies need to identify policies that might exclude minority groups, and find ways their teams can work remotely but together."
In practical terms, BCS says more reskilling of older workers is needed to ensure they remain up-to-date on the latest digital systems. The government's lifetime skills guarantee, which offers new qualifications to UK residents free of charge, could be a positive step in this regard.
Bersin says ageism in tech may decline as the Millenial generation gets older and takes up managerial positions, and generations Y and Z start to enter the workforce. But it is nevertheless important for tech leaders to build inclusive cultures within their organisations, so that the products they develop reflect the whole cross-section of society.
"Companies who understand this can train, engage, and develop their older workers in very powerful ways, building a more inclusive company and inclusive experience for customers," he says, adding that studies have shown that businesses with diverse teams are more creative and innovative. "Companies have to model this behaviour and understand that age, like any other demographic characteristic, is not a disadvantage," he adds.