Are You Too Old for a Career in UX?

Camren Browne, contributor to the CareerFoundry blog

With so many designers ranging between 20 and 30 years of age (according to the 2019 design census), many people are left wondering if they are too old for a career in UX design. The short answer to this question is most definitely no. But we’d be doing you a huge disservice if we acted like ageism doesn’t exist in the industry.

In fact, a 2018 AARP study concluded that 2 out of 3 U.S. workers over the age of 45 have seen or experienced ageism in the workplace. And while ageism is prevalent across many careers, tech workers seem to get it the worst. CWJobs conducted a UK survey in 2019, revealing that ageism in tech may start as early as age 29, and UK tech employees reported that 41 percent of workers observed age discrimination compared to 27 percent in other industries.

So, why are we so convinced that it’s never too late to be a UX designer? While you may face different obstacles than your younger colleagues, becoming a UX designer (and succeeding!) in your 30s, 40s, 50s (and beyond) is totally doable. In fact there are even advantages and perks that you’ll experience that your younger colleagues won’t (at least not for a while).

So, let’s talk about the challenges and benefits of being an “older” UX designer, how to overcome any age-related obstacles, and how to succeed regardless of how many candles were on your most recent birthday cake. Here’s what we’ll cover:

  1. The challenges of being an “older” UX designer
  2. How to overcome age-related obstacles
  3. Benefits of being an “older” UX designer

1. The challenges of being an “older” UX designer

Making an impression and breaking into the industry is a challenge for aspiring UX designers of all ages. However, people with more years and more life experience under their belts have unique challenges to face when they’re first entering the field or looking to move up the ladder. Here’s a quick overview of those challenges—along with how to overcome them.

This can be a challenge for older designers both experienced and new to the field. Seasoned designers who have been in the industry for a while may have a hard time letting go of past trends and keeping up with rapidly changing practices or new softwares. Similarly, though not specific to a designer’s age, many new UXers don’t feel as tech savvy as they think their colleagues are, or they feel somewhat intimidated with the amount of information they have to learn. This is common, often related to imposter syndrome, and an easy obstacle to overcome.

How to beat this challenge: Dedicate just a few minutes each day to reading some UX design blogs or perusing your favorite designers latest works. Staying up to date can become effortless once you create that habit.

Connecting with younger employers and colleagues

It can be a bit daunting to be employed by and work with people who grew up a generation or two after you. Some find it difficult to fit into the “young and hip” crowd in some companies—and younger designers might feel too intimidated or uncertain to seek out work relationships with older colleagues.

One designer in her 20s writes, “When I worked at Microsoft, I felt estranged from the people in their mid-40s. I don’t think it occurred to any of us that younger people should grab lunch with older people.”

How to beat this challenge: Be intentional and take the time to genuinely connect with younger co-workers. This will break the ice a bit and help keep age-related barriers at bay.

Finding a salary that fits your needs

If you’ve already built a career in another field (and it’s just time to move on), you might be looking at an exciting new start in UX…with an entry-level salary, which might be significantly less than what you’re used to earning. People in their 40s (and up) are more likely to have more demanding financial needs than folks in their 20s or 30s—from mortgages and child care to healthcare and retirement planning. It may take some patience to work your way up to that higher salary—and/or some extra effort and attention to show potential employers that you’re worth a higher salary.

How to beat this challenge: Set realistic expectations for your starting salary, but also understand that you can leverage past work experience in a way that showcases your value as an employee! You have life and career experience that hold a lot of value—highlight these transferable skills. This can help you negotiate or work towards the salary that fits your needs best.

A UX designer working from their couch, with a journal, laptop, and cup of coffee

More everyday responsibilities and stresses

Whether you’re looking to land a job or earn a promotion, you’ll most likely be competing with a lot of younger designers with fewer responsibilities than yourself. Working your way up the UX career ladder can be hard work for anyone, and as one UX designer in her 50s puts it, “You do get tired more often than when you were 30.”

While energy levels vary no matter your age, it’s often the case that folks over 40 have more family obligations to tend to; they might be more settled and less willing or able to relocate for a job. And those all-nighters? They’ve been there and done that—and might be less interested in summoning the energy for those any more.

How to beat this challenge: Some good organization and a healthy work-life balance will actually help keep you energized and on track in your UX design career. And who knows? You might have a thing or two to teach your younger colleagues.

Getting past mental barriers

Mental barriers like imposter syndrome or a general lack of confidence may be hard for older individuals to navigate when they’re making big career changes later in life—and entering a field so densely populated with 20-somethings. Furthermore, they may have to work around how younger employers view older designers and tackle age-based discrimination in the hiring process or workplace.

How to beat this challenge: We know for a fact that most UX designers experience imposter syndrome from time to time. It’s a common experience, no matter your age. Remember that age really is just a number and understanding the merit you hold and the value you bring at any age can help break down age-related barriers. Trust your experience. You have a lot to offer!

Age-related obstacles don’t have to stand in the way of you and your new career. Here are some tips and best practices that are truly useful to designers of any age, but that can be especially helpful to new or aspiring UXers who identify with any of the challenges or benefits we’ve mentioned in this guide.

These tips will help you overcome imposter syndrome, understand and communicate the value of your transferable skills, and stand out for your expertise and the value you bring to the table.

Immerse yourself in UX design reading

Not only will this help you make sure this is the career change you want to make but it will also show employers that you’re passionate about design and can take the time to learn on your own. Here are some great resources to start with:

Follow UX design blogs, podcasts, etc. to stay up to date

This is crucial for both new designers and experienced ones. Keeping up with changing trends shows you are an active member of the UX community and willing to learn new practices and adapt your designs to the times. Here’s a good list of UX podcasts you can follow to stay current. You can also try your hand at UX and gain valuable experience points by creating personal projects, participating in UX design challenges, and volunteering for UX related projects at your current job.

Attend meetups or online networking events

Attending meetups or online networking events is a great way to meet other UX designers in your age range and learn from their experiences. You may even be able to find a mentor that will help you as you transition between fields and throughout your UX career.

Keep your resume and portfolio current

Although your resume and portfolio may not explicitly state your age, if they feel outdated, potential employers may be less likely to give your work their attention. For instance, past trends of work experience may have conditioned you to believe that formal presentations are better. However, depending on a company’s work culture and demographics, workplace formalities may be more casual than what you might be used to.

Find ways to leverage your age and past experience

This is paramount to keep in mind for your resume, portfolio, LinkedIn page, and one-on-one interviews. Make it extremely clear to employers and colleagues what exactly you bring to the table, how your past experiences make you a stronger designer, and your overall value as a designer on their team. The benefits we discussed here are helpful to highlight as well as any personal talents and achievements relevant to the job.

Be flexible and keep an open mind

As one UX designer in their 50s puts it, “Beware of old-foggy-ism wherein we get set in our ways and become dismissive of alternative approaches. You’ll be working with some fresh young faces a lot of the time and you had better match their energy and creative openness if you want to remain competitive.”

UX designer working at their desk, speaking into a phone and taking notes

3. Benefits of being an “older” UX designer

While age-based discrimination is an obstacle you might face, there are also many benefits that designers in their 40s and 50s (or wiser) can offer the design community.

More work experience in a variety of fields

Having more working experience, no matter the industry, automatically puts you in a desirable position. People with a longer work history bring years of experience from diverse backgrounds. This experience often gives them a perspective that’s grounded in a lot of life and work experience—a perspective that brings tremendous value to the product design process.

Employers may be looking to increase inclusivity

With more attention on the issue of ageism in the design and product development communities, employers are often looking to diversify their staff and specifically hire designers with more work and life experience. Older designers may be able to design more effectively for user needs that are related to age—or that require greater empathy and life experience to even notice or understand. So you might have a unique perspective that can help keep accessibility and inclusion at the forefront of design decisions.

Greater experience with soft skills

Soft skills often take a lot of time and practice to develop! One advantage older UXers enjoy is that they’ve had more time to cultivate a rich set of soft skills. Their years of experience often come with well-practiced empathy and quality time-management and communication skills, as well as resilience from past experiences of failure.

Final thought

While ageism in design is a pressing issue, there is plenty of opportunity for UX designers age 40 and beyond to have a flourishing and rewarding career. Valuable experience, perseverance, a willingness to learn, and a passion for empathetic design is much more important than your age. As more employers see the value in diversifying their UX teams, the world of product design will benefit from everything you—and UXers like you—have to offer.

If you’d like to learn more about starting a career in UX, here are a few other articles you’ll find useful:

What You Should Do Now

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