Grey Is the New Black

Grey Is the New Black

Not in a good way.

Bloomberg News recently published a piece reminding us that It’s Tough Being Over 40 in Silicon Valley. Reminding, as this is not exactly breaking news, and nothing has changed since it first surfaced in the days of Web 1.0, and even then, it was getting old fast.

The tech sector is one of the biggest proponents of not discriminating on the basis of  sexual preference and welcoming immigrants of all stripes – all well and good, but if you happen to be African American, female or over 40, it’s quite another story and truth be told, ageism is the most socially acceptable form of discrimination. “…When it comes to race and gender bias, the people running Silicon Valley at least pay lip service to wanting to do better — but with age discrimination they don’t even bother to lie, noted Dan Lyons. “People born after 1980 do not possess some special gene that the rest of us lack. But Silicon Valley venture capitalists and founders somehow seem to believe this is the case. I suspect the truth is that tech startups prefer young workers because they will work longer hours and can be paid less.”

And therein lies the rub.

The average age of an employee at the top technology employers is around 29, according to a piece in Fast Company, and according to Fortune (Silicon Valley’s Peter Pan Syndrome vs. the Aging of Aquarius), “the EEOC joined a probe behind a federal class action lawsuit against Google… charging that the search giant “engaged in a systematic pattern” of discrimination against applicants over the age of 40. The suit… cited data from Payscale that placed the median age of Google’s workforce at 29. By contrast, the median age for U.S. computer programmers is 43.”

“A few years ago, Mark Zuckerberg caused a stir when addressing a few hundred entrepreneurs at Startup Camp,” said Steven Levy in Backchannel (How Can We Achieve Age Diversity in Silicon Valley?) “’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.”

Has it ever occurred to anyone that perhaps they’re just more circumspect? Been there, done that, know where the potholes and landmines are.

“As Bill Maher recently said, ‘Ageism is the last acceptable prejudice in America,’ Levy continued. “And Silicon Valley is the white-hot center of it.”

According to Vinod Khosla, “People under 35 are the people who make change happen. People over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas.” And as the Fortune article points out, Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin are both over 40, and Eric Schmidt is 64.

“Research by Northwestern University economist Benjamin Jones indicates that Nobel laureates since 1985 created their prize-winning work at an average age of 45, the same age at which most inventors had their great achievements. Copernicus offered his general theory of the universe at age 70. Virtually no physicist or chemist has won the Noble prize for work done in their 30s or earlier in their lives…And Steve Jobs’ most successful innovations, including the iMac, iTunes, iPod, iPhone, and iPad, were developed after age 45.”

What if neurosurgeons were unemployable once they hit 40? There’s a lot to be said for experience, and one does learn over the years. There’s a reason why tech also needs more seasoned workers and figuring out why isn’t brain surgery.

Lest we forget, Silicon Valley is also focused on the singularity – the idea of living forever as a cybernetic human, and we wonder where that concept fits into the ageism equation. Isn’t the argument against older workers/entrepreneurs that one can’t generate fresh ideas forever? Oops. Of course, the best and the brightest can sometimes be a bit shortsighted. Then again, wisdom often comes with age. Onward and forward.

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