For the most part, the startup game is a young person’s game. Several years ago, people from Harvard Business Review decided to research how old Silicon Valley’s founders. Among other things, they discovered that, at the time they founded their companies, more than 60% of startup founders were under the age of 35. Together with some scathing investigations of ageism in the tech industry, this makes startup owners unlikely to hire older employees, like for instance, those over the age of 45.
So, why are startups not hiring older job candidates and should they?
Scarcity of Hard Skills
Startups mostly have a need for certain types of professionals that have certain skillsets that did not even exist as categories ten or twenty years ago. Quite naively, many startup owners think that just because app coding didn’t really exist fifteen ago, no one over the age of 40 knows how to develop apps. This is simply not the case.
A huge number of developers and other tech-oriented professionals did not go to college for what they are doing. They learned it as they went along. Why is it so hard to believe that someone older than 45 is incapable of this?
In fact, people who were there for the early days of coding and who are behind the software explosion of the last two decades are well over 45 and they have experience that no 20-something year-old can boast.
We should also remember that many startups feature all kinds of adjunct positions that do not have to do with developing the actual product. Sales, marketing, procurement and various other positions become a part of a startup’s life and this is where experienced older employees can also excel.
Imagine if you ran a startup that finally launched a working product and you have to hire a salesperson. Would you rather have a 20-something “social media expert” who never made a sale in their life or would you rather have a 46-year old salesperson who has been making sales for the last 25 years, surviving all kinds of economic downturns and industry crises?
Difference in Priorities
Working for a startup is a chaotic way to lead one’s life and an insecure one, at that. The vast majority of startups operate on an extremely limited budget and they are often unable to pay out regular salaries to the people who work there. Instead, they are awarded stock options and other alternative modes of compensation. Other benefits such as contributing towards superannuation or providing health insurance are also often circumvented by creative employer-employee relationships.
It is actually quite understandable that may startups are vary of hiring older employees because they expect them to look for stability that a startup job cannot provide. After all, many people over the age of 45 have families, children whose education they have to pay for, mortgages and endless other expenses.
The crazy and unstable world of startups is really not best suited for such potential employees and neither side will end up satisfied.
That being said, there are also many older people whose situation in life differs greatly from the aforementioned cliché. For instance, many over-45s have already made a nice little sum of money that is working for them and they might be looking for a professional challenge and a bit of a gamble. There are also older people whose lives do not revolve around debt and regular salaries and who will be more than happy to embrace the chaos of working at a startup.
We should also acknowledge the fact that some startups relatively quickly achieve some kind of stability where regular salaries are possible and where the day-to-day operations resemble large, established companies. In such an environment, even the biggest fan of structure and stability can enjoy themselves, regardless of their age.
The Startup Culture
A lot has been said about the cultural milieu that some of the most successful once-startups have developed for a number of reasons. More recently, we have been hearing some truly negative things about the inner workings of startups, especially in regards to gender equality and some other issues. Even before those issues have been (deservedly) raised, the startup culture was often maligned as overly homogenous and unaccepting of anyone who didn’t fit the certain type.
Among the people who are ill-suited for such a hermetic culture, we will definitely find people who are over a certain age. The day-to-day practices, a laxer structure and somewhat esoteric cultural traits can be too much for older employees to decipher, leading to a certain feeling of detachment and being out of place.
In case you run a startup, this kind of culture is absolutely toxic, and not just for the people who work or who might otherwise work for you. This kind of culture has negative effects on the way your startup does business. When you have too many people thinking and saying the same thing, it is difficult to notice problems or to approach problems from a variety of standpoints. A company culture that is too homogenous hurts the company.
Hiring older employees might actually help you avoid this and create a more diverse culture where different voices will be heard.
If you run a startup and you are hiring, you should never write anyone off just because of their age. People over a certain age might surprise you with their mix of expertise, experience and a certain approach to life that will be a breath of fresh air in an average startup.
More than anything else, generalization is never a great starting point when running a business. All people are different and just because they are born a certain year does not mean they will fit some imaginary model.
Sure, there will be cases where the majority of older candidates will not be the perfect fit due to the unstable nature of your startup, but you should definitely never write them off just because they were born ten years before you.