Silicon Valley's ageist culture is in danger of spreading

Tech companies in Silicon Valley are ageist. The median age of workers at Facebook and LinkedIn is 29. At Google, it is all of 30. "Young people are just smarter," as Mr Mark Zuckerberg is supposed to have said. And even if they are not smarter, they are certainly cheaper.

There are lots of stories of tragic people in their 40s and 50s buying hoodies and boning up on superheroes before they pound the virtual pavements in search of a job. Some eventually get hired but most appear not to. It reminds me of the things women have been doing for decades to try to fit into a male world - wearing trouser suits and taking up golf, only this time it is worse. San Francisco has become a hot spot for Botox, with tech workers in even their late 20s and 30s seeking to inject their faces with stuff that renders them expressionless, to fit in with their baby-faced colleagues.

Yet there are bigger barriers to older people working in tech that no one is talking about and which no hoodie or syringe full of botulinum toxin will take care of. It has nothing to do with any prejudice that the over-40s are slow at mastering technology or that they lack entrepreneurial spirit. Instead, the barrier is the very thing that these companies are being praised for: their new organisational structure.

I've been reading The Conversational Firm by Catherine Turco, a sociologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has spent months infiltrating "TechCo", a rapidly growing software company in the US. It has chucked out the old ways of working and arranged itself on more open, unhierarchical lines. It is the product of a socially networked age, in which people communicate within companies in quite different ways. The result, says Ms Turco, is an organisation built around conversation. So far, so good: People my age are all in favour of conversation. Only not of this variety.

The book starts with a glowing description of Hack Night at TechCo. Hundreds of employees assemble in a hall at the company headquarters; the evening begins with a call for anyone with an idea to tell the audience what it is. Then each idea is assigned to a part of the room and, as music is pumped up, everyone moves around to discuss whichever idea appeals to them. There's beer, pizza and a lot of talk. It goes on for hours. At about 9pm, everyone goes home.

At TechCo, they love Hack Night. But they would because the median age of their 600 staff is 26. I view an evening like this with unmitigated horror. Not because I think it couldn't work, or that no fruitful discussion could ever result. It simply would not work with me as a part of it as I am at least two decades too old for it. TechCo calls it "controlled chaos" but I am anti-chaos of any sort, on the grounds that it is chaotic and therefore a less efficient way of organising than something more structured. Worse, the very idea of Hack Night offends me because, like most people my age, I'm a cynic. Traditional organisations can tolerate moderate amounts of cynicism but this new company functions only when everyone is a true believer.

The more companies that model themselves around this sort of "conversation", the more my generation will be locked out - even if their young bosses stop saying outrageously ageist things and see some sense in trying to hire a few older people. At some point, the penny must drop, even with the most bigoted 20-something billionaire, that age discrimination is not just illegal or unfair but is also stupid. When older customers are the ones with most of the money - needed to keep almost any business going - not having them in your workforce makes no sense.

What worries me most is that these organisational ideas are bound to escape from Silicon Valley before long, as that is the way of these things. The infantile office decor with primary colours and bean bags was invented in California but has long since migrated, so now the frumpiest businesses all over the world have offices that look like kindergartens. This is regrettable but not a disaster - older people can simply close their eyes to it.

But with the conversational firm, you can't just close your eyes - or ears. It is a structure, a philosophy and a way of life. In this conversation, people in their 40s, let alone those in their 50s or 60s, will have nothing to say.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 01, 2016, with the headline Silicon Valley's ageist culture is in danger of spreading. Subscribe