Ramp models and beauty queens aren’t the only ones dreading the first grey hair. While ageism is the sort of malaise long associated with glamour and fashion, it is surprisingly prevalent on the tech playgrounds of Silicon Valley, home to engineering geniuses with Botox and hair transplants.
The idea of techies with perfectly functional grey cells being as terrified of ageing as bikini models seems rather odd.
What happens to techies when they enter middle age? That’s a question best answered by the 227 job-seekers over 40, who received $11 million from Google to settle a lawsuit over age discrimination in hiring practices a few weeks ago.
Google denies it was unfair towards older job applicants, despite settling the lawsuit. The case was spearheaded by a woman who was interviewed by Google four times over seven years, but was never offered a job despite her qualifications. She believes this was on account of her age, and has accused the company of a systematic pattern of discriminating against older people.
This is no isolated case. J K Scheinberg, the Apple engineer who helped move Mac to Intel and had worked in the company for 21 years, was rejected when he applied for a job at an Apple store a few years after retirement.
There’s also the lawsuit filed by the Communications Workers of America against hundreds of companies, including Amazon and T-Mobile, for using Facebook ads to target younger people. Older people were not shown the ads. Facebook settled the lawsuit earlier this year, announcing that employers would no longer be able to use the platform to target ads to younger employees only.
USA Today called age the silent career killer in tech, highlighting the way recruiting firms use automation to weed out people over 40 without actually asking for their age. Days after he applied for a tech job, Lou Covey, (64) got a robo-call from a recruiting firm, where he was asked the year he graduated. When he answered 1970, the phone went dead.
Ashton Applewhite, the author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, wrote in the New York Times that the demise of traditional pensions meant that many people had to continue working in their 60s and 70s to maintain a decent standard of living, and yet over one and a half million Americans over 50 were unable to find jobs. She says the reasons weren’t personal but structural, “a dumb and destructive obsession with youth so extreme that experience has become a liability.”
In an interview with tech journalist Kara Swisher, Applewhite said ageism was often the first form of discrimination that many white men encounter. “If this kind of oppression is affecting skilled white men in their 30s, imagine the effects further down the food chain; ageism intersects with sexism, women in the work world at large in the US stop being promoted at age 32, and it is compounded of course by race and by class”.
Silicon Valley recruiters are now advising job-seekers to shave years off their resume to look younger, and get their LinkedIn photos shot by professionals, so that they look more youthful.
Older people who do get a shoe in the door are constantly reminded of their age. People in their 50s have been called fuddy-duddies. A woman supervisor in her 30s was called “den mother” by her much younger team.
“Silicon Valley has become one of the most ageist places in America,” writes Noam Scheiber in a piece for The New Republic called The Brutal Ageism of Tech. “I got the distinct sense that it’s better to be perceived as naïve and immature than to have voted in the 1980s,” he writes.
Scheiber interviewed San Francisco-based cosmetic surgeon Seth Matarasso, who “routinely turns away tech workers in their 20s."
"Matarasso told me that, in ascending order of popularity, the male techies favour laser treatments to clear up broken blood vessels and skin splotches. Next is a treatment called ultherapy - essentially an ultrasound that tightens the skin…. But, as yet, there is no technology that trumps good old-fashioned toxins, the most common treatment for the men of tech. They will go in for a little Botox between the eyes and around the mouth,” writes Scheiber.
Ageism may seem like the natural consequence of an industry known for its start-up culture, where fearless youngsters rewrite the rules of the game. And yet, it may be as much a consequence of economics as it is of culture.
In an interview with tech website Dice, Dan Lyons, journalist and writer for HBO’s Silicon Valley, says, “I think it starts with those guys - the investors, what they want and what they push for. I think they’ve all decided that the optimal return is young kids: Burn them out, get rid of them, replace them.”
A ProPublica investigation unravels the manner in which IBM, once the world’s dominant tech firm, cut tens of thousands of jobs, largely targeting older employees, as it scrambled to compete in the internet world. Older employees were told they were being laid off as their skills were outdated, but these same people were then brought back to the company as contract workers, often for the same work at lower pay.
The myth that older people aren’t smart enough for tech was further busted by a Harvard Business Review study on the average age of a successful start-up founder being 45. And yet, while Silicon Valley worships science, it continues to promote the particularly unscientific belief that older techies are not as smart as young ones.
Anahita Mukherji, is an independent journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She tweets @newspaperwalli