Ageism Is Everywhere, It Sucks, and Few Care
Today I’m going to tackle a sensitive topic. I don’t know how sensitive this topic really is because I think everyone is pretty well aware that this is exactly what’s happening, but people keep calling it a secret when it obviously isn’t. Some people even say, “this is the darkest deepest secret of Silicon Valley.”
And that it’s that ageism is everywhere.
I can’t imagine why anybody would think that the darkest deepest secret when a prominent VC stands up on a stage in front of thousands of people and says:
“I don’t think I’d want to invest in anybody over the age of 30. I just don’t think that anybody over the age of 30 can come up with new fresh ideas.”
When somebody says that out loud on the stage in front of thousands of people and thousands of media, it’s not much of a secret, now is it? When you see questions on Quora like:
“What do you do in Silicon Valley once you’ve turned 35 and are officially over the hill?”
That’s right. That’s exactly what it said. Once you’re thirty-five in Silicon Valley, you are officially over the hill. What do you do? I guess you can just hang your head in shame or leave or something like that, right? I mean, you obviously aren’t useful anymore if you can’t stay up all night or work 100-hour weeks coding, not sleeping and partying all night; I guess you’re useless.
Ageism is a funny “ism.” Unlike racism or sexism, you won’t see millions of people in the streets protesting it. It just happens, and no one seems to care. Everyone is OK with it. In fact, it feels like it’s celebrated in places like Silicon Valley.
It kind of reminds me of Logan’s Run. Do you remember Logan’s Run? The cheesy Seventies flick starring Michael York? I was watching that the other day. If you don’t know Logan’s Run, maybe you’re too young: basically, the way it worked is that it was a dystopian future society, and in the movie, everybody lived in this Domed City, and everything was controlled by this artificial intelligence, and everything was wonderful, and everybody had whatever pleasures they wanted.
They even had an early version of Tinder in there! Except they teleported people directly to you, and if you didn’t like them, it would teleport them away. Even the producers of Logan’s Run came up with Tinder way back in the seventies. Who knew?
The whole point behind it was that there was a certain amount of limited resources in the world and because those resources were so limited that someone somewhere encoded into this supercomputer the fact that humans should only live to the age of 30. In the book, it’s to the age of twenty-one. Humans should only be allowed to live to the age of 30 because beyond 30, they’ve outlived their usefulness, and they are just destroyed so that there are more resources for the young. This whole society was based on this: everyone had a life clock like a flower implanted in their palm at birth, and this clock would change color based on how old you were.
It started clear, then yellow, green, and then red, and then it was a sort of flashing red, which meant your days were numbered.
Once it went black, you were supposed to report to these places where you would attend this elaborate ceremony where you’d float into the air and explode.
In the book, you would have to submit yourself for sleep. They would put you to death painlessly and for the good of society. If you didn’t want to die, then you would run. If you run, this paramilitary force called Sandmen would chase after you and gun you down. I suppose they tracked you through your life flower, and when they found you, they would gun you down with his super painful weapon, then robots would come along and dissolve your body, and that would be it.
So the society was fairly orderly because everybody who was young got all the resources, and as soon as people got to a certain age, they’d be killed. Sort of like a dystopian version of “death panels.”
You are old, so you are useless, and as in most science fiction, they take it to an extreme to make a point, so they say, “let’s just kill you off so that we don’t have to feed you, clothe you or provide for you.” (For some reason most sci-fi of the time thought communism was in our future or something)
You’re now a drain on the system, not providing new ideas. You’re not providing any innovations. You not doing anything new or taking any risks.
Wait a minute. I seem to segue into real life and what people generally seem to think about older workers in Silicon Valley.
I’ve read all sorts of interesting articles on this front, and most of them are fairly well balanced, but some are not.
Some of the ones written by the younger workers are pretty brutal. I paraphrase:
“We don’t need any of you stinking older workers, you guys are stuck in the past. You can’t understand the world of today, you’re slow, you fall asleep in meetings, you just can’t handle the day to day startup life, you can’t do it, and you can’t deal with it”
And there is the opposite:
“We have the experience. We won’t make the mistakes that you are making day after day. We can do things in a third of the time because we have the experience and the know how to do things and we can learn if we need to.”
So there are thoughts on both sides, but the reality of the situation is that it has nothing to do with ability. If you ask me, nothing because today’s programming languages and tools are fairly simple to learn compared to the languages of old. It’s much more difficult to learn C++ or C or assembly language than it is to learn Ruby or Python. Much more difficult.
So I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to say that older workers typically have the ability or they can gain the ability to learn new languages and techniques, like agile. Sure, some people are more sticks in the mud, and they say purposely say that they aren’t going to learn. But that’s a completely different issue. There are people who are willing to learn, and there are people who are unwilling to learn.
You should always be willing to learn new things. Life is school. You’re always expanding your knowledge base, and especially nowadays, the way education is being disrupted by alternative ways of learning.
You can go to a 12-week coding school, and you’re a real programmer. It’s not rocket science anymore to become a decent coder.
The reality is I don’t think it’s the ability of the individual that’s the problem. I don’t think that they can’t learn new things. I don’t think that they can’t code circles around some of these younger folks. I think the problem is even simpler: they just don’t want to hang out with you.
Companies with young founders are like high school or college cliques. And they just don’t want to hang out with someone like their parents (or even grandparents). For them, it’s an all-encompassing work/play/life thing – they live and breathe their startup, have no life outside of it, and only want to hang out with people their own age. It’s like a nightclub; they don’t want to let the old creep in.
For the older VC I quoted earlier, it’s probably the same thing – hanging out with younger founders makes them feel young. I bet that the younger founders only like having the VC guy around for his money; he’s not someone they’d actually prefer to hang out with. Give me your money, and let me run with it. Of course, without adult supervision, some of these startups tank. Not altogether surprising.
In the startup, they are all together all the time. And who’s in the room? A bunch of twenty-somethings. Are you going to add a guy in his forties or fifties into that room? How is that guy going to fit into that room? All these twenty-somethings are going to say:
“We don’t want this guy around here. That’s like hanging out with your dad even if he was a cool guy I don’t know if I’d want to hang out with him.”
It’s more of a cultural thing. It’s not the fact that they have the ability – they have the ability to do the work. They just don’t want you around. Most probably because you’d show them up.
Now, what’s the problem with that? It’s not as big a deal as you think because maybe you don’t want to be around them. It goes in both directions, doesn’t it? Do you really want to work with people that don’t consider you an asset to the team? Right.
You shouldn’t have to bend over backward and do whatever you can to be considered an asset to the team: you are already an asset. If they don’t think of you as an asset, then some other company will. Maybe it’s not a startup, maybe it’s a major corporation, or even better, just go on your own. Be an entrepreneur, start your own startup, run your own business, and become a consultant or whatever: your age should not stop you from getting a good job, being gainfully employed, or making decent money.
It’s not your ability that’s the problem here. It’s people who are too narrow-minded to see that your ability rocks.
It’s not big secret ageism is everywhere, and we just have to deal with it as best we can. There are some people whose minds you cannot change, but there are others who will see:
“Damn that guy is a good coder. I don’t care if he’s forty eight years old, he can still kickass. I want him on my team. And yeah maybe he has to go home and not hang out at the beer bashes. But you know what, he still gets stuff done on time and under budget and our projects our products go out the door.”
So you see what I mean? Look past the age if you can, but if you can’t, it works both ways. You won’t get that kick-ass coder on your team because he won’t want to work with you.