The Plight of the Graying Tech Worker

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High-skilled immigration is dramatically transforming the tech sector in the United States.  In 1975 immigrants accounted for one in 12 inventors in America.  Today it’s one in 3.5.  This surge is due to immigrant concentration in science and engineering fields, and factors that make the United States attractive, such as access to the latest technologies and high pay levels.  The impact has been most evident in advanced technology sectors in areas such as Boston and Silicon Valley, but non-tech companies including JPMorgan Chase, KPMG, and Walmart are also pursuing more global talent.  Studies tout the benefits that skilled immigrants bring to the workforce, including their roles in facilitating global teams and contributions as taxpayers.

But not everyone is happy with the current system, most notably older tech workers. In an effort to secure work in the booming Silicon Valley economy, for example, older workers have been scrambling to learn new coding skills and making other changes (including updating their wardrobes and even undergoing plastic surgery) in order to appear more youthful.

They’re not overreacting. Analysis of employee-level U.S. Census Bureau data and qualitative interviews by Harvard Business School Professor William R. Kerr was published in the Summer 2019 MIT Sloan Management Review.  They shows that U.S. tech workers older than age 40 have good reasons to be concerned about how globalization affects their career longevity. In addition to competing with greater numbers of skilled foreign workers, older tech workers are now also more likely than younger workers to lose their jobs when technical work moves overseas.

All that said, it would be a mistake to rein in U.S. immigration policy.  Here’s why.

The largest and most prominent visa category for employment-based immigration to the United States is what’s known as the H-1B visa. Some 90 percent of H-1B visa recipients are individuals younger than age 40.  Typically, economists analyze the effects of immigration through an apples-to-apples comparison of immigrants and nonimmigrants in the same general age and education bracket who are looking for employment.  However, peer displacement doesn’t appear in...

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