How Can We Achieve Age Diversity in Silicon Valley?
Silicon Valley has always been prone to buzzwords, often annoying and almost always overused. The latest is an exception: diversity. Suddenly, there’s an explosion of discussion, press, conference panels and even executive attention devoted to expanding the workforces of tech companies into something other than enclaves of white and sometimes Asian males. One result has been a trend towards releasing diversity reports that show how incredibly far we have to go.
The effort is long overdue. For as long as I’ve been covering technology — my book “Interviews with Edison” will be coming out soon — I have been struck and dismayed by the underrepresentation of women and minorities. (In my first book, published in 1984, one of my subjects even speculated that women were not hardwired to be great hackers.)
But now that I actually work for an Internet company (as opposed to a media company trying to figure out the Internet), I am struck by something overlooked in this welcome development. A diversity discussion gap, if you will. In Silicon Valley there is one underrepresented group in particular — one that by law is entitled to fair treatment in hiring and employment practices — that not only has failed to enter this conversation, but is often regarded as anathema when it comes to headcount.
And that is people over 40. Or 45. Or 50, or 60. You know…old people.
Let me be upfront about my own status, though people in this category are often encouraged, with good reason, to keep their mouths shut about such things. Through an accident of birth, I am 64 years old. This makes me an utter outlier among startups and small companies in the Valley. Indeed, at Medium, the next oldest to me is twelve years younger and he’s got a few years on the next person. There’s a total of two people over 50, the age bracket that presidents and Popes usually occupy, and those jobs are at least as demanding as product manager. There are ten people over 40, most of them in the early part of that decade (including our CEO).
Even at that, I suspect Medium is more age diverse than a lot of other small Internet companies. Recently I visited a friend who just took a job at one of the Unicorn startups in the valley. This person is a couple of years younger than me — but still over a decade older than the next oldest person. Another friend of mine, roughly my age, believes herself the oldest person by a good margin in her company of several hundred.
(Generally, it’s been my observation that when someone over a certain age gets hired at a technology company, that candidate is not simply one of a group of people who applied for the job, or was recommended by a employee, though God knows what 25-year-old would suggest his or her company hire someone old enough to be their dad or mom. It is someone whose accomplishments are pretty well-known, a person who, when the hiring is announced, generates giddy chatter in the Slack channel. Wow, we hired…X??!??)
I apologize for the anecdotal nature of this summary, but the kind of breakdown I got from our HR head is usually unattainable. Let’s take those diversity reports. As far as I can tell not a single one of them reports age distribution. True, the government does not require that companies provide this information, as it does with categories like race, ethnicity and gender, so it might take a bit of work to get. One company, Payscale, does supply some estimates. Looking at its numbers in 2012, Payscale noted, “The typical tech employee wasn’t around for the original release of Star Wars.” And as of last year, the average age at Google was 30; at Facebook, 28; LinkedIn, 29, and Apple, 31. In comparison, the average age in more traditional tech industries like data processing or web publishing was almost 10 years higher than Silicon Valley/Internet firms.
In my view, age information should be included in those diversity reports, to underline the need for change— and, even more important, those in charge of company cultures should view age diversity as a plus.
Right now, that’s not happening.
A few years ago, Mark Zuckerberg caused a stir when addressing a few hundred entrepreneurs at Startup Camp. “Young people are just smarter,” he reportedly said. He quickly retracted, and now that he is over 30, one suspects he might have modified his views, if indeed he was speaking his heart. Nonetheless, he was reflecting a view that is widely held but seldom explicitly expressed in Silicon Valley. Older people are seen as dimmer and less energetic than those under 30. There’s a worry that having worked elsewhere, older people have ingrained habits that prevent them from adopting the fast-moving pace of innovation necessary at tech companies and especially startups. I guess in some cases that might be true — but in any age group some people will be more adaptable than others. I suspect that more often than not, tech companies, particularly smaller ones, shy away from older folks, often with the flimsy justification that they’re not “culture fits.” Critics rightfully point out how that vague term often leads to excluding other underrepresented groups.
The difference is that with age, too many people don’t believe that the underrepresentation is a problem. As Bill Maher recently said, in a monologue whose humor had a bitter edge, “Ageism is the last acceptable prejudice in America.” And Silicon Valley is the white-hot center of it.
As a result, older job seekers — many of whom were laid off in the endless “re-orgs” that come when companies struggle, merge, or just want an excuse to cut the codgers — have to take lunatic measures to present as if they are not who they are. A 2014 article in The New Republic about the age problem in technology described how middle-aged people are undergoing plastic surgery to appear more age-appropriate for a workforce that values youth. Instead of standing up for their legal right to be considered for a job, and to be retained once they held a job, people of maturity are hiding their identity, or at the least misdirecting people from the shameful fact that they are not in their twenties. Can you picture the outrage if gays were forced back in the closet to get work? If people of diverse cultural heritage had to change their name to remove the perceived stigma of their background? If women were asked to pose as men in order to get work, like some sick version of a Shakespeare comedy? But believe it or not, subterfuge is standard advice for mature job-seekers. Don’t list too many jobs on your resume, experts warn. And of course — get thee to the Botox.
I feel comfortable at Medium, though I did skip the corporate scavenger hunt. But there was one moment where I was hyper aware of my chronological status. This year, as with many tech companies, diversity has become a hot topic here. We had a sometimes-tense all-hands meeting about the color and gender of the noggins in our head count. But in the meeting, not a single word was uttered about the lack of age diversity in the company. I felt if I brought it up, people would think of me as arguing for my cohort — Grampa from the Simpsons. I kept my mouth shut. Not long afterward, we had an excellent, must-attend seminar of “unconscious bias” by an outside consultant, Joelle Emerson, CEO of the company Paradigm. But of the many examples she cited of workplace faux pas, not one dealt with age. (Granted, she did explain that her examples came from studies of workplace issues, and the most salient ones for her purpose of educating us on bias in general dealt with gender, race and ethnicity.)
Afterwards, I reached out to Emerson, who agreed that she could have done more on age. “It’s a super valid topic to bring up,” she said. “It’s so crazy that in this industry we don’t value experience.”
I asked her if she knew of any company in the industry that actually did a good job in age diversity. She thought for a moment. “No,” she finally said. But then she added that none of them were doing all that well at other forms of diversity, either.
Fair enough. But at the least, age deserves a place in the discussion and an acknowledgment that age diversity is a plus for the company — both morally and strategically.
But you tell me — should companies strive for age diversity, even in a field as innovation-crazy as tech?
Present your counterargument, or bolster my own. Share your own experience. Better yet, come up with some solutions. After I hear from you, I might suggest a few of my own.