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Millennials, wake up! Algorithms will be discriminating against you in just a few years

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Reuters/Eric Thayer
Time flies.
  • Lila MacLellan
By Lila MacLellan

Quartz at Work senior reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

As you age, it becomes easy to forget that although your generation’s label is static, your age isn’t. “Gen X” still rings of youth to me as a Gen Xer, but at our company holiday party the other day, a colleague called The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love,” an iconic song from my younger days, classic wedding music, and I was snapped back to reality.

Knowing how easy it is to lose track of passing decades, therefore, and assign old-age issues to other people, I’m guessing that many millennial readers skipped past the story published yesterday (Dec. 21) by the New York Times and ProPublica (a joint investigative piece) about job ads excluding middle-aged (and older) users of Facebook.

The media outlets reported that companies, including Amazon, Goldman Sachs, and Target, used Facebook’s sophisticated ad targeting algorithms to send job ads to the news feeds of people under 40, a potential violation of anti-discrimination laws. Facebook has advertised internal positions this way itself, the story revealed. And in one case, Verizon was found to have purchased an ad campaign that would only target people “25 to 36 years old who lived in the nation’s capital, or had recently visited there, and had demonstrated an interest in finance.”

To millennials, I’m admittedly guessing, the entire ensuing discussion about whether the platforms ought to be held accountable, and attitudes around age in Silicon Valley, and elsewhere, may sound like someone else’s problem, since they’re the ones hiring managers are eager to meet. But let’s turn to the data: The oldest Millennials were age 37  in 2017, too elderly to have been among those deemed worthy of viewing that Verizon ad, and just a few years shy of 40.

They’re also the thin edge of the wedge of a demographic that’s 79.8-million strong, the largest living generation in the US. Unless Facebook and others are required to change their ways, tens of millions of adults will soon be marching over the middle-age threshold, blissfully unaware of what jobs are not being promoted in their social media feeds, between GoT gifs.

Ageism, so easy to shrug off when you’re young, is almost certainly going to come back to haunt you. As Gen Xers might say, Reality Bites 

The courts may soon rule on whether Facebook is in violation of the law. Yesterday, as the Times reported, a class-action complaint was filed in federal court in San Francisco on behalf of Communications Workers of America, a labor union, “as well as all Facebook users 40 or older who may have been denied the chance to learn about job openings.”

And Facebook may not be the only tech company facing legal action. Google and LinkedIn were eager to sell ProPublica ads that would exclude anyone on the wrong side of 39.

LinkedIn did the math, however, and changed its system to limit age-targeting after it was contacted by ProPublica. It introduced a self-certification process, via a checkbox, that asks companies to commit to not discriminating. However, whether it will work remains a question: Facebook has had the same self-certification checkbox in his ad-buying software since February 2017

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated LinkedIn had taken steps to make it “impossible” for companies posting job ads to target specific age groups and exclude others. That statement was inaccurate. LinkedIn is requiring advertisers to declare they aren’t discriminating, but the company hasn’t completely blocked the practice.

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