A job-seeking friend of mine in her 50's is going to dye her hair pink or another fun color to “fit in” with the younger set. Another older friend isn’t dealing just with being laid off from her last job, she's worrying about age discrimination in the next one. A colleague in his early 40’s recently confessed his fears about being seen as the “old guy” at his new tech job.
Ageism isn’t just a feeling, it clearly exists and affects millions of highly qualified older workers everywhere. But this strain of discrimination is particularly insidious in the San Francisco Bay Area, where a young person is the norm, and a few wrinkles and a lengthy resume can be a job killer.
Even the definition of “old” skews shockingly young now. Witness the new “tech elder” retreats for age 30 and up (this is not a typo) to help them cope with workplace insecurities.
As a freelancer who left corporate life early in my career and stayed in Silicon Valley, I’ve thought deeply about this issue and how it affects me and other older consultants. When I hear and see countless stories about work ageism, I’ve had to ask myself: Is being older a good thing or a bad thing as a consultant?
Here are some reflections as a member of the “Silicon Valley Seniors” club.
We Hit the Ground Running
When companies hire a consultant, it’s typically to fill a role that requires jumping in and getting work done without the steep learning curve. Having been in the Silicon Valley for 25+ years, I know the ropes, project nuances, and can work faster because I have the experience. Typically, this is not a training ground for younger freelancers to cut their teeth.
More Tools in the Toolbox
Decades of experience also translates to having a Swiss Army Knife of skills. Perhaps a client wants a seasoned writer but also someone with experience in project management (check), PowerPoint (check), or another expertise. With older consultants, you almost always get a holistic knowledge base instead of one or limited skills.
Clients Trust Experience
Displaying a bunch of client logos on my website isn’t for my personal vanity, it’s evidence that I’ve proven myself in this competitive valley. When well-known businesses hire you, there is a track record of success. Clients get that shortcut to trust, knowing that they can rely on you to do a quality job, because you've done it many times with industry leaders.
Face Your Fears
I’ve had the surreal and somewhat comical experience of walking into a client site and being twice the age of the average employee. Or not knowing a piece of slang. Or even witnessing a young colleague make an ageist remark about a customer in a meeting (side note: we discussed it after and ended up having a great chat about a lot of topics). Either way, I don’t let the age divide stop me from doing my job and calling out agesim when I see it.
Wise Comes in Any Age
We all know the millennial stereotype: need a trophy for everything, can’t take any criticism, etc. From my experience working with younger and older employees, it’s been pretty evenly distributed: Solid people skills, smart ideas, and great personalities come in young and old (as do the opposite) A fresh point of view from someone in a different generation can open up ideas and prompt you to second-guess your own stale thinking.
Work Harder for the Work
I’m a voracious business reader as it is. But even more so now to understand the trends and technology to stay current in my industry. It pushes me to upgrade my skills, ask more questions, and challenge myself to learn. In any world, that’s a positive thing, but particularly now where everyone and everything moves so fast. Never let confidence be an excuse not to keep skills sharpened and be open to change.
The (Green) Elephant in the Room
Money. There, I said it. Fact is, a younger consultant will almost always charge less, and sometimes a project is all about the Benjamins. When I’m competing with less experienced freelancers, budget decisions are out of my hands. If a potential client wants to pay less for the work, they’ll get the commensurate skills and experience. That’s not a slam against younger folk, it’s just business.
Let's be clear: the saying "Age ain't nothin' but a number" does not apply Silicon Valley hiring (or anywhere else for that matter). But when it comes to consulting, a client may choose someone younger than me, but there are plenty of powerful reasons why they won't.