IBM used to be one of the biggest and most important companies in the world — until the world changed and IBM didn’t change quickly enough. So now, as it continues circling the drain, it has been shrinking its workforce like mad and to nobody’s surprise, has been dumping older, more expensive employees first. Many are crying foul, claiming age discrimination. One embarrassing IBM document even claims that "successor generations … are generally much more innovative and receptive to technology than baby boomers."

Peter Gosselin and Ariana Tobin looked into this in Pro-Publica, and found that IBM really wanted new blood for the new technologies the company was chasing.

Not only were millennials in sync with the new technologies, but they were also attuned to the collaborative, consensus-driven modes of work these technologies demanded, company researchers said they’d discovered. Millennials "are not likely to make decisions in isolation," the presentation said, but instead "depend on analytic technologies to help them." By contrast, people 50 or over are "more dubious" of analytics, "place less stock in the advantages data offers," and are less "motivated to consult their colleagues or get their buy in … It’s Baby Boomers who are the outliers."

Meanwhile, a lot of people loved what IBM was doing, hiring young people of every stripe, as Gosselin and Tobin continue:

"Its initiatives won IBM plaudits from women’s groups; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organizations; human rights and disability associations; indeed advocates for just about every class of people protected under U.S. equal employment opportunity laws."

The unfortunate truth is that if you're a big but shrinking company, your work force is going to be stuffed with a whole lot of aging white male baby boomers; it's a fact of demographic life. And in an era when people are demanding gender equity and greater diversity, it’s hard to achieve when almost the entire upper management level is older white men who really don’t want to give up what they’ve got just yet.

And while it's true that older workers are often maligned (despite that they are often early adopters of tech and are very productive because they're so experienced), if we're going to achieve any kind of gender equity, something’s got to give.

Closing the gap: Not as simple as it sounds

Writing in the Financial Times, Michael Skapinker notes that the newspaper has a serious gender pay gap, primarily because it has more men than women in senior posts, and the paper is unable to control "when staff choose to retire." The FT, like many companies today, is careful to create a good balance in who they hire, but it's harder to deal with the problem at the other end, as IBM is finding out. Skapinker suggests that the sooner older men like him push off, the quicker the pay gap will close.

If you are hoping for a whinge about how men are the real victims of the #MeToo movement and the new gender agenda, you have come to the wrong place. Being male has been highly beneficial to many older men, like me, who have enjoyed successful careers. During our late thirties to early fifties, generally a time of the most significant promotions, we often had the field pretty much to ourselves, as many female colleagues were on maternity leave, looking after children or working part-time… Inflation was high during some of those years and the pay increases we won were hard-baked into our salaries.

He suggests that companies should get creative, perhaps offering shorter work weeks or opportunities for consulting contracts.

women promoted As you can see, the majority of the latest promotions at this architecture firm are women. (Photo: Diamond Schmitt Architects)

A good alternative is to be lucky enough to work for a growing company. I noticed a recent announcement from a big Canadian architecture firm where five of the eight promotions went to women, including two who were promoted to principal. But then I talked to a woman slightly younger than I am who worked at another firm. She acknowledged that most of the employees were now women, but the upper management and principal layers were clogged with older men, many of whom she didn't think were pulling their weight. As a result, she sees little chance of promotion.

Reading Michelle Singletary in the Washington Post, it appears that one of the biggest problems in the United States is that people can't afford to retire, and they can’t leave early or even at the usual retirement age because they have no savings for retirement. She notes:

Personally, I’m hearing from a lot of people who had intended to work past 65 to give them more time to save, but they complain they’re being pushed out of their jobs because of age. They are hitting the "gray ceiling."

It’s an almost intractable problem; one solution might be to have better child care to make life easier for women in the workplace, free health care and better pensions so that people can retire in comfort and security, but that might mean higher taxes like they have in Europe or Canada. Another approach might be to borrow trillions to goose the economy and keep everybody working on building stuff like oil rigs, military equipment and SUVs, but that might fry the planet and leave a huge debt load for the kids.

Which one seems like the better choice to you?

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

Old white men are clogging up the upper ranks of business, so what should we do about it?
Much of the generation and gender gap is due to simple demographics rather than evil intent.