Have you heard that mathematicians do their best work before 30? I wonder if that is sometimes misinterpreted as ‘mathematicians are useless beyond thirty’. I thought of this, writes Brian Runciman MBCS, when we started work on the BCS’s 2019 Diversity report, part three of which covers age.

This is not the place for a treatise on the fetishization of youth - or a discussion of mid-1970s dystopian films where everyone has to die at 30 - but rather why IT is missing a trick with its approach to older workers?

The over-50 population is increasing - and it is evident that IT has a skills shortfall and an ageism problem. Our report shows that male IT workers are more concerned about their age holding them back in their career than females and that there are real grounds for that concern for both.

Individuals aged 50 and above accounted for 30% of the UK working age population in 2017 with a nearly commensurate 28% of those in work. But it is much lower amongst IT specialists. Of the 1.3m people working in such roles in 2017, only 21% (280,000) were aged 50 and above. In London the figure is even worse: just 14% of those working in IT were aged 50 and above over the 2014-17 period.

Maybe the first idea that comes to mind in support of the argument for older IT professionals is that we still have large issues with legacy systems. They represent a huge cost to strip out; have implications for a lot of expensive retraining; have huge underlying complexity and, even with the newer approach of integrating new and old; require expert knowledge.

The subject is occasionally discussed in the specialist press. Infoworld recently suggested: ‘Rather than replacing everything, reach for the middle ground. Leave legacy systems as the foundation and overlay the next generation platform on top of them.’ This balance isn’t easy, but has obvious implications for the work prospects and retention of older professionals.

Today some banks are still on mainframes; C is widely used; Fortran - which has a 2018 update replacing the 2015 flavour - is over 60 years old; as is COBOL; and even languages like Java are nearly 25 years old. There is potential drama in the fact that these and other legacy applications are still used in air traffic control, nuclear power plants and the aerospace industry.

Whilst these are real issues, there is a problem with this line of reasoning - it is inherently ageist. All this implies that older people are needed because of older systems. Legacy people for legacy systems is not a useful message.

There are at least two other avenues worth exploring - the benefit to society as a whole, and the personal attributes of older workers.

The Centre for Better Ageing draws attention to the general societal benefits: ‘Society is failing to realise the tax-raising potential of this age group… Official figures show that halving the employment gap between people aged 50 and state pension age and those in their 40s could see income tax and National Insurance receipts rise by 1% (just under £3 billion) and GDP up to 1% (£18 billion).

‘It could also help to reduce the welfare bill, with £7 billion a year currently being spent on benefits for people aged 50 to state pension age who are out of work.’

Beyond the financial arguments, a Reuters’ piece from last year quoted Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and author of ‘The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50’ as saying, ‘People are getting to their sixties with another 15 years of productive life ahead, and this is turning out to be the most emotionally-rewarding part of life.’

He then draws a line between this stability and the productivity of workers - they ‘tend to be reliable, conscientious, organised and mature - all of which is hardly surprising when life experience teaches you valuable lessons through the years.’

Whilst Reuters uses terms like ‘the human capital of older workers’, apparently without blushing, there is validity to these views.

Human resources blogger Lewis Lustman in a recent post came up with a long list of benefits of employing older people. Among these he includes: decades of potential relevant experience (admittedly that is tending toward the legacy argument again); mentoring capability; an increased likelihood of comfort with flexible hours; they well may stay in a role for much longer than younger staff; they are probably not job-hoppers; and their experience may contribute positively to brand ambassadorship.

A point that comes up when discussing all areas of diversity raises its head here too: an age-diverse workforce makes sense, since older employees represent a large segment of the buying public. They may know that market better than the rest of your team.

Oh, and let’s just revisit our introduction with a counter-example: Eugène Ehrhart. He received his PhD in mathematics at the age of 66, and around the same age, he created the ground-breaking polynomial class now named after him.

If you would like to tell BCS your experience as an older IT professional please email editor@bcs.org

Further reading

How to incorporate enterprise legacy systems into your digital strategy
Older workers crucial to future of UK economy
Companies need older workers: here is why
The surprising benefits of hiring older talent