Local Blogs

By Stuart Soffer

The Taboo Topic of Ageism in Silicon Valley

Uploaded: Jun 25, 2014

A few years ago I searched for a technical expert for a case involving set top box circuitry and functionality and located someone here in the Valley. Meeting at his office he invited me along to the company lunch line. Looking around I observed that he was the only gray-haired guy there (besides me). How did he survive in tech so long?

There are longstanding concerns related to the increase in immigration visas, especially for H1B temporary tech workers. Is the popularity of imported labor due to a true lack of skilled domestic employees or do employers prefer H1B employees because they are less likely to be encumbered by families and community responsibilities?

Two recent excellent articles in major journals take up the ageism issue, which stirred me to think of the local impact on a declining middle class; and whether all the prognostications for Silicon Valley such as head count and housing consider this ignored demographic.

First an article in The New Republic "The Brutal Ageism of Tech" indirectly frames the problem as how the pressure on older tech workers is a boon to another sector ? plastic surgeons. Apparently cosmetic surgeons have a new revenue stream - applying Botox to techies ? men in particular. If anyone is interested Fridays are busy key day for patients since the weekend allows a physical respite.

"?In the one corner of the American economy defined by its relentless optimism, where the spirit of invention and reinvention reigns supreme, we now have a large and growing class of highly trained, objectively talented, surpassingly ambitious workers who are shunted to the margins, doomed to haunt corporate parking lots and medical waiting rooms, for reasons no one can rationally explain. The consequences are downright depressing?."

"Still, ageism in Silicon Valley is usually more subtle: an extra burden of proof on the middle-aged to show they can hack it, on a scale very few workers of their vintage must deal with anywhere else. "People presume an older developer learned some trade skill five to ten years ago and has been coasting on it ever since," says a 40-plus developer whose department consists mostly of 20-year-olds.

In 1999, a consultant named Freada Klein began a five-year "quality of work" study of 22 start-ups, whose employees she anonymously surveyed on a regular basis. Though Klein found that few of the companies copped to overt discrimination, many confessed to having elaborate points-based systems for evaluating job candidates, in which they deducted points for being married, having kids, and living in the suburbs. The older candidates were quite literally being held to a higher standard."

The above lengthy article then studies the relation of entrepreneur age to receptiveness of VC's, using Silicon Valley ecosystem.

In the second article, "Tech Industry Job Ads: Older Workers Need Not Apply" the author addresses the role nuanced language in job advertising that can give cover to a corporation to avoid the legal quagmire of age discrimination.

"Young tech workers fill office parks and corporate cafeterias across Silicon Valley with few if any grey-haired colleagues in sight. It's a widely accepted reality within the technology industry that youth rules. But at least part of the extreme age imbalance can be traced back to advertisements for open positions that government regulators say may illegally discriminate against older applicants.
In fact, many factors explain the age imbalance in the technology industry. Younger workers command lower salaries and benefits. They are also less likely to have families and can therefore work longer hours. Some hiring managers also look for candidates who are a good "cultural fit," which can be code for young and hip.

We have a segment of population that is in a charitable word: ignored, but in reality is sandbagged. What is the impact for our area and Silicon Valley? This is probably an invitation for co-blogger Steve Levy to weigh-in. This week he writes about "Improving Job and Income Mobility for the Region's Low and Moderate Wage."

Any experiences in the crowd?