Silicon Valley has a "dirty secret," according to Reuters: age bias. We don't know if we'd call it a secret, exactly — it's pretty common knowledge that startups like to hire wunderkinds who are fresh out of college (or didn't even make it to graduation) who have few responsibilities other than staying up all night, hopped up on Red Bull, coding or what have you.
But it is interesting that, out of the 18,335 employment cases filed in 2010 with California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing, one-fifth cited age, which puts age below retaliation but above racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual orientation as a discrimination claim. Nationally, age is still below retaliation but also much lower down than the rest of the possibilities, which means that something is clearly specifically up in California, and job applicants and investors alike say it's specifically specifically a Silicon Valley.
So why would startup CEOs want to hire young people? Lots of reasons. People who don't have kids can (and are willing to) work long into the night, are more likely to know how to use new software, and seem more fun to hang out and work with if the person calling the shots is young him/herself, which many tech entrepreneurs are.
Companies, of course, aren't allowed to discriminate based on age, so it's hard to get people who make hires to talk on the record. But technology recruiters say age discrimination is rampant; Marta Fuentealba, a principal at start-up specialist Talent Farm, relayed this anecdote:
She recalls a meeting at a software company a few years ago, when the human-resources executive told her he would like to find somebody "around age 26 or so" to fill a job. An age requirement along those lines would violate both state and federal laws on discrimination, California labor lawyers say.
"You mean, somebody less jaded?" Fuentealba recalls asking, hoping to jolt the executive back into legal territory. "And he said, ‘No, I mean somebody young, probably no older than 26.'" Back at the office, she sent the executive resumes from a variety of candidates.
Investors, however, can do whatever they want, and quite a few have championed millennials at tech conferences. "I am just an incredibly enthusiastic fan of very talented 20-somethings starting companies," Sequoia Capital's Mike Moritz, who is 58, said nearly a decade ago. They don't have distractions like families and children and other things that get in the way of business." Khosla Ventures' Vinod Khosla, 57, told conference goers last year that "people over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas." Laurie McCann, an attorney with retiree lobby AARP, backed that up: she said the tech community is "obsessed" with youth and tends to collectively think that old people are slow and bad at coming up with fresh ideas.
So what's a "basically dead" but literally very alive 40+-year-old who works in tech to do? Fake it. Some tips: iPhone or Android = yes, Blackberry = no. Mac = yes, Dell = no. Avoid wristwatches — there's an app (or at least phone screen) for that, duh — and dress young; one 60-year-old Silicon Valley CEO said he wouldn't be where he is today if he hadn't shaved his grey hair and donned converse during his interview last year. Or you could always get plastic surgery; according to Roy Hong, chairman of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation's plastic surgery department, men represented 14 percent of his customers last year, up from 9 percent a decade ago.
Oddly, he didn't comment on whether the rates of women going under the scalpel had gone up, as if only the industry's men feel the pressure to look young. Or — cue the sad trombone — maybe there weren't enough Silicon Valley women around to interview! Not that it's a competition, but it still seems like sexism trumps ageism when it comes to the tech world: even though tech jobs are predicted to grow up to 22 percent in the next decade, faster than all other jobs, women aren't learning how to fill those jobs and those already in the industry are peacing out, according to multiple studies.
The pessimistic takeaway here is that only young men can become stars — or even get by — in the tech industry. Sure, sexism and ageism are illegal. But when investors want to support and CEOs want to hire bright young things who have scarily competitive levels of energy and know-how, how can those in the minority possibly make it through the door?