Ageism in Silicon Valley has been all over the news lately. The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story titled “Silicon Valley's Youth Problem.” Male engineers in their twenties are getting botox and hair transplants before key interviews. “The Brutal Ageism of Tech,” a feature story in the New Republic, described a swelling cohort of “highly trained, objectively talented, surpassingly ambitious workers” sidelined “for reasons no one can rationally explain.”
Prejudice is irrational. Age discrimination is illegal. It’s bad for business: diverse workplaces are more productive and profitable; good hardware projects (not sexy!) don’t get funded; consumers lose out. The underlying industry premise that youth drives technological innovation is baseless. All this has been documented for decades. Why the attention now? Because for the first time in their lives, people at the top of the food chain—smart, skilled, straight, well-paid, non-disabled white guys—are experiencing discrimination. It happens to be because they’re old enough to have kids. Or mortgages. Or receding hairlines.
“Welcome, men to our world,” writes Ann Friedman in a terrific piece in New York magazine called “Silicon Valley Disrupts Discrimination: Now it’s for Middle-Aged White Guys, Too.” That would be the world of women huddled behind office doors hooked up to breast pumps trying to play down the fact that they're parents, not whiz kids, or reluctantly learning golf in order to meet male clients, for example: “the world of being hyperaware of how you’re perceived, every moment of every workday.” As she notes, the burden of trying to conform to the dominant culture applies doubly and triply for people of color and gay people and people with disabilities. Friedman also notes that when women face bias, we tell them to lean in, and when it happens to people of color we barely notice, but that when men confront biases, we look for what it reveals about the bigger system.
Ageism is still so unexamined that age doesn’t make Friedman’s short list of discriminatory categories; for her the big win in all the media coverage is a fresh take on “now-familiar Silicon Valley sexism”. It’s not missing because these are stories about age discrimination either. It’s missing because most people think of aging only in biological terms (and within those confines, only as decline). It never dawns on most of us that the experience of reaching old age—or middle age, or even just aging past youth—can be better or worse depending on the culture in which it takes place. (Hint: steer clear of the United States, especially Hollywood and Silicon Valley.) Like racism and sexism, ageism is a socially constructed idea that has changed over time and that serves a social and economic purpose—to legitimize and sustain inequalities between groups. These prejudices aren’t about how we look, they’re about how people in power assign meaning to how we look. These tech guys have lost their grip on power merely because they are no longer in their twenties.
Friedman suggests that Silicon Valley may inadvertently have produced an innovation here by “disrupting” discrimination itself. (In industry parlance, a “disruptive” innovation unexpectedly displaces an established [older] technology.) For the first time people are looking at the underlying values of tech culture and questioning its obsession with youth-and-hipness. The Bay Area’s extreme manifestation of this mindset doesn’t make it any more palatable than garden-variety discrimination on the basis of having dark skin or a wheelchair or a vagina or actual gray hair, but that’s what finally garnered some attention. The coverage is revealing cracks in the “meritocracy” that has served this elite so well on all other fronts. Let’s hope it jimmies them wide open, and brings ageism into the discussion.