Silicon Valley, We Have An Age Problem: Let’s Start Fixing It Here

Steven Levy
Oct 21, 2015 · Unlisted
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A couple of days ago, I came out as the ancient Medium-er, the only person in my small tech company who has had a chance to see Jimi Hendrix play live. I am welcome in my company and cautiously proud that attaining diversity has become a passion among the workforce here. (Cautiously, because as with most companies in the virtual Valley of startup world, diversity here is more aspirational than an accomplished task.) But I was disturbed at the lack of discussion regarding one form of diversity — age. In this Medium is not much different than a lot of companies: among the workforce, old-growth redwoods are rare. Yet we don’t talk about it.

That’s why, in this pilot edition of our new feature, You Tell Me, I asked all of you to share your thoughts about age diversity in the tech world.

And you have, over 100 of you.

You’ve confirmed that the problem exists. One of the Valley’s leading experts on unconscious bias, Joelle Emerson, nails it:

Age diversity is clearly lacking in many Silicon Valley tech companies. . . “culture fit” likely plays a role in the lack of representation of different age groups, especially if culture fit is defined loosely and subjectively, as it is in so many companies, as “who you want to grab a beer with.”

You’ve shared your stories. We’ve heard multiple accounts of capable, qualified people not employed, in an environment where tech companies hunger for talent. But one that stands out is a post from Jackie Lea Shelley, who tells of her dad, a master programmer with a stellar resume, and her brother, skilled but not as experienced. Her brother, she reports, gets paid more. And when her dad applied for work at Google, his experience and acumen did not lead to a job offer. Listen to Jackie:

I would love to see him paid what he deserves. I would love to see him once in his lifetime truly valued by the company who hires him. I would love to see someone, at least once, acknowledge that his age is an asset, not a liability.

You’ve made the distinction between this problem and other urgently pressing diversity needs. Like Doc Searls, who I have known as someone who recognizes that gender and race bias is a stain on the Valley. He matter-of-factly explains that, simply by not dying or retiring early, he now finds himself in a category that limits his opportunities.

It’s interesting to have spent most of my life as a standard-issue white guy from the First World, exceptional in no demographic respects — until I got old. Once that happened, I experienced ageist prejudice first hand, as my real and apparent value moved on diverging paths, one up and one down.

You’ve also made the case that underrepresentation of people higher in the age spectrum is counterproductive. As Ashton Applewhite wrote,

Companies aren’t adaptable and creative because their employees are young. They’re adaptable and creative despite it.

So the question is, what next? We’ve already taken a big step by vigorously discussing it. But how can we convert talk to action?

Some of you have hinted, or even suggested, some ways to address the problem. But let’s sharpen the discussion. Medium Community, here’s your assignment: help me come up with a list of action items that anyone, old or young, could get behind. Let’s change things.

You tell me: How can we best address the need for age diversity in tech — and maybe the entire workplace?

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