How Can We Achieve Age Diversity in Silicon Valley?
Steven Levy

Thanks for this article, finally!! Not sure why it is taking so long for the discussion to surface, but it is about time. Living in the Bay Area, mostly considered now a suburb of Silicon Valley, EVERY company is promoting ageism, which makes me wonder if it is as pervasive throughout the entire country as it is here. Even if one has worked in a traditionally fast-paced industry as I did most of my career (garment industry, including retail but mostly inside as a designer and merchandise manager) I am constantly confronted with derisive attitudes. At 61 I have been looking for a job for 3 years, 10 months. Having clawed my way up the ladder at Levi’s, showing how a designer can move into product management, business management, and merchandise management, when I wanted to use the skills elsewhere at 49 it took me 6 months, and then it was into non profit as an executive director. I was lucky that time, without realizing it. When I left that organization (the average length of time an executive director lasts in a non profit in the US is 3 years; I left after 3 years) it took me 1 year and 8 months to land another, but still in non profit, which I didn’t want but had no choice — the cost of living here, as the world knows, has always been high here and my mortgage was $2362/month. Unemployment certainly doesn’t cover that. When that non profit closed its Berkeley office to consolidate to South Lake Tahoe at the end of 2011, I thought the added experience would be a huge plus; I added development director to the resume, along with all the other very impressive qualifications. All I can say is Thank Goodness for the common sense I had to refinance (twice), and look for any way to earn something. Thank Goodness for survivor benefits after the age of 60 (I lost my husband when I was 48), so at least my basic costs of housing are covered.

The other aspect of living in a suburb of Silicon Valley is that everyone hears of how low our unemployment rate is, how many jobs there are, and how exciting it is to be right here. What that also means is that every single company thinks they are a tech company. Having either worked as a product manager or done the exact same tasks with a different title for most of my career, now I find it has a different meaning to every HR person in the world! Now I am supposed to have PMI credentials to do what I have been doing throughout. And, because I have not lied on my resume or dumbed it down, most people think I am a doddering ancient. If they bother to look at my Linked In profile, they would see someone who looks about 15 years less than actual age, still no grey in her hair, 100 pounds at 5 feet tall, very fit and very physically active, and not at all doddering. They might find that I have expertise in both Apple products and PC’s, have managed the content on numerous web site platforms, have used numerous email marketing platforms, plan and execute events, and actually can write without grammatical errors (most of the time). I dare anyone to go through one daily paper without spotting at least 5–10 of those, or any on line blog without catching numerous egregious errors. So, age certainly doesn’t make that any better.

Recently, just for giggles, I counted the want ads in the Sunday SF Chronicle — not that anyone uses that any longer in job searches. Someone at the Chron must be too old to know that. Out of 125 listings a full 65% were for tech jobs. That was 81 listings. There was a total of 16 categories, with the next closest categories, business/strategic management and engineering, each having 7 listings. And, most of those engineering jobs were in technology.

I receive about 3 or 4 calls and email a week from specific recruiting companies for great positions that they see match my background in Silicon Valley. EBay and Google both look for merchandising expertise with their new marketplaces; Facebook also has had the need for eCommerce and retail experience where they post ads. After discussions these recruiters are quite positive about my abilities to fill the roles in question. And that is the last I hear from them about it. I read about new companies starting the “next great thing in t-shirts” and look into those; this is something I have quantitative proof with, like doubling the men’s t-shirt sales at Levi’s when I took over the management of knits as product manager. The 1 time anyone responded I had an interview that was a farce; the 22 year old who has a famous name and no history who interviewed me wanted to just tell me how great they were going to be. I guess he invested in it. I also managed the custom jeans program at Levi’s for 6 years, and I contact each new Bay Area company that think they have a new, ingenious idea for custom product. Not once have I gotten a return call or email.

I DO realize that there are people who find jobs. I have friends who are able to take a much reduced pay — but I have done that as well. In 2005 I took a 25% reduction in pay, in 2010 a 40% reduction again, from the lower scale! These friends are also married with another means of support, male and female. But for each of those I also know another who cannot find a job, whose spouse refuses to be the supporter in the marriage and it ends in divorce, who lose their home because they went through savings after looking for 5 years.

Anyone who has not gone through a prolonged job search has no idea what this does to a person’s psyche, self-confidence, and health. Forced retirement at 58 sucks.

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