Is The Biden Administration’s Forthcoming U.S. Digital Corps Program Ageist?

When Joe Biden officially announced his bid for the Presidency in early 2019, daily media headlines argued that Biden, then 76, was too old for the job. Since turning 78, President Biden has grappled effectively with bipartisan agendas, pandemic recovery and racial tensions. Why, then, propose and promote a program rife with ageism, raising serious issues of bias and discrimination against older workers?

Last week’s GSA press release “Biden Administration Launches U.S. Digital Corps to Recruit the Next Generation of Technology Talent to Federal Reserve” foregrounded the focus on early career workers making up the “next generation of public servants” and how current employees were accelerating toward retirement. 

If that were not egregious enough, the press release concluded with reference to building a “highly skilled U.S. Digital Corps that represents the diversity of the United States, including along the lines of gender, race and ethnicity.”

Where is age? 

If our government overlooks this protected category, how can we ever expect other hiring authorities to pay attention?

Why Age-Inclusive Strategy is Key

In February 2020, a FedWeek article cited budget documents indicating “the average age in the federal workforce is older than the nation’s broader working population–46 versus 41. About 28.8% (604,000) of federal employees are older than 55. At the other end of the spectrum, only 7.3% (154,000) are younger than 30, compared to 23% of private sector workers.”


Among IT workers, FedWeek reports that employees aged 60 and over have nearly doubled since 2007 to 14.2%, while the under-30 fell from 4.1 to 2.7%. And, that of all federal employees, only 15% are retirement eligible.

But that doesn’t mean they are retiring.

Pew Research reports that 29% of people aged 65 to 72 were working or looking for work before the pandemic. Post-COVID, displaced older workers find it difficult (and in some cases impossible) to find employment, even when willing to switch careers, an indication that age bias is already pervasive.

In another study of 400 workers between 40 and 65, 67% plan to continue working after age 66.

What the U.S. government employment data reflects is the shifting age demographics, a projection the Census Bureau says will continue in every decade through 2060. For the entire 2020-60 period, the older age group is projected to increase by 53% compared to only 13% in the younger group.

Age demographics illustrate organizational urgency for attracting, developing and retaining diverse, multigenerational talent. Therefore, it is not in the government’s best interest to create a program focused only on the youngest generation at the exclusion of others.

Here’s where the program launch of the U.S. Digital Corps failed.

Assumptions and Stereotypes

What is the basis for the GSA’s contention that current workers are “accelerating toward retirement?” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of workers aged 65 or older has grown by 117% in 20 years, while employment of individuals 75 years or older has likewise increased by 117%. 

If the U.S. Digital Corps program is focused on ensuring the government has digitally skilled employees, they need to stop assuming retirement eligible means retiring. And, they need to ensure their recruitment efforts and program communications are age-inclusive. Doing so is not only the right thing to do, it also prevents the GSA from violating their fundamental charter to not discriminate by age.

In his analysis of BLS data, William R. Emmons, assistant Vice President and Economics at the St. Louis Federal Reserve, argues that the employment of older workers will continue to increase. Not only because of the shifting demographics but because overwhelmingly, people are living and working longer. By comparison, employment of the younger population will be lower due to falling birth rates. 

Secondly, what basis is there for the assumption that older workers are not interested in changing career fields or moving into technology? In reality, it’s not unusual for technology boot camps to enroll learners between 15 and 75

Early career ≠ young! 

The U.S. Digital Corps should encourage applicants of all ages, whether their first job or their 10th. Age inclusivity needs to be reinforced in all communications, including the imagery on the program website. And, we should see evidence of it in the representation of new hires, once the program has opened.

Language and Inconsistencies

In response to questions related to the GSA press release, Christina Wilkes, press secretary with the Office of Strategic Communications, forwarded the following response from an unnamed GSA spokesperson. “The Digital Corps opportunity is open to all technologists of any age who are interested in the role and are qualified to do the work.” 

Yet according to the press release, GSA administrator Robin Carnahan states that one of her top priorities is “recruiting the next generation of public servants”—reflecting a clear age bias. 

“There’s no question that the language is targeting a younger age cohort,” says age activist and author Ashton Applewhite. “It’s deceptive at best and very possibly illegal.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) made it very clear: job postings conveying preference—“recent graduate,” young,” “energetic”–are recruiting practices that may indicated systemic age discrimination.

When asked why, after emphasizing early career and the next generation, age was omitted from the reference to what the Digital Corps is looking for when building a diverse program, the spokesperson indicated that GSA (which hosts the Digital Corps) is an equal opportunity employer. 

“Our goal is to recruit a diverse applicant pool across all markers of identity and experience.” 

If that were the case, why not emphasize that point instead? 

The Good News

What’s good is that government officials have been made aware of the ageist slant and, hopefully, will take appropriate action.

And, since the GSA anticipates that most individuals interested in the U.S. Digital Corps will have minimal technology work experience, anyone interested in a new career in technology, regardless of age, might consider applying.

Applications for the first cohort of U.S. Digital Corps fellows are scheduled to open this fall.

Now, if only the U.S. Government would immediately suspend the use of the term elderly when referring to 65 and older.

The Tycoon Herald