Mix Geeks and Seniors - Get Ageism?Does being a geek carry an automatic bias toward ageism? Geeks often possess knowledge unavailable to earlier generations. Unlike tribal times when elders were respected as repositories of culture and knowledge, modern times are characterized by large numbers of young people who know they are hot and anyone older than them is not. Rapid technological and cultural advance promotes this view.

This is not a new phenomenon. It happens whenever technology or culture changes more rapidly than can be accommodated. Technology example: When horses and guns were introduced to the plains people, young men suddenly became more powerful than the elders and the culture was upturned. Cultural example: When I was a boy, we knew instinctively that Glenn Miller music sucked and Elvis was hot. We pitied the old folks who did not get it. Now I am a senior and experience the ageism we practiced back in the day. And I have come to realize that media play a more important role in promoting ageism than I realized.

Count the seniors you see on television and see how many are portrayed favorably.

Some types of deliberate ageism are technically illegal, but that is not much of a deterrent. When a company I worked for was bought, I volunteered for the inevitable reduction in force. As a condition of being laid off, we executives were offered an outplacement service. I went because I wanted to start another company and thought that would be a good place to meet competent executives hungry for another opportunity. We sat in a briefing and were told how to fill out résumés. The instructor was firm, “Say you are experienced. Under no circumstances say you have over 20 years of experience.” Ageism in hiring might be illegal, but if you admit to 20 years of experience, then you will not get hired. It is that simple. As a test, I sent out two sets of résumés; one with and one without my actual age apparent. I never received a single response from an honest form. No rejections, just no response. Maybe they all got lost in the mail.

Other forms of ageism occur daily. A member of the Geek Squad looked at me with total bewilderment when I described how I had recovered data from a client’s failing hard drive by thermally shocking it so that I could copy files before it crashed totally. The idea that a BHOF would actually know something useful to show him was a new concept (by the way, it does not always work — I was lucky). Young geeks simply assume that I can barely use an XP machine for email and surfing. When I point out to them that data from space-borne instruments I designed are still being analyzed, the doubt is obvious in their eyes.

Over the years, I have developed the habit of meeting new geeks (club members, clerks, service people) with a detailed and correctly posed technical question. With some quick back and forth, I can establish the equivalent of geek street creds. Then the conversation can proceed between equals. But at technical conventions, you can watch twenty-somethings enter a booth and automatically be assumed knowledgeable about whatever is being displayed without resorting to artifice. Seniors are treated differently.

Why does ageism persist? As with all stereotypes, there is sufficient correlation between age and technical knowledge to make it a useful energy saving tool. Compare ageism to sexism or racism. If you educate a group, such as young girls, to think they cannot succeed in technical fields and you support this education by not hiring or even promoting them, then surprise: you do not have many female geeks. The stereotype correctly predicts the average behavior of females because it is a self-fulfilling prophecy with no proven rational basis. An HR person tasked with finding a new hotshot engineer might want to save time and energy by filtering from the applications all those who are older than a certain age, or are females, or based on some guesses, belong to a disfavored race or religion. I hope there is a special place in hell for such perverts.

So do me a favor and do not assume that the next senior you meet is technically naïve. That might be the case, but it does not justify a condescending attitude. To me, an honest geek is driven by passion. An honest geek wants to share that passion. And the funny thing is, that the more you share, the more there is of it.