I was joking with Steven Levy, 64, editor-in-chief at Medium.com's Backchannel, about forming a club. We are both the oldest people in our respective offices by decades. Yes, decades. And there's a reason for that: Ageism is the last accepted prejudice in America and it runs rampant, especially in the tech industry.
Levy made ageism the kick-off topic on Medium's new conversation series called You Tell Me, which is a sort of reverse AMA (ask me anything) where one well-known person (him, in this case) asks the community a question, hoping to have a reasonable discussion of an important issue. I suspect this is possible on Medium because the author controls which comments appear beneath the post. This keeps the trolls and haters at bay, but leaves plenty of room for differing opinions -- plus the conversation stays civil and on-topic. Imagine that.
Levy, author of "Hackers" and "In the Plex," notes that the current buzz in Silicon Valley is all about "diversity" and there's a lot of hand-wringing going on about tech jobs being the exclusive enclave of white and sometimes Asian males. "Where are the women? Where are the people of color?" everyone is asking. Fair enough.
But the one question nobody is asking is this: "Where are the old people?"
Levy wants to know what's behind the silence. Without diminishing the need for more women and minorities, why isn't the lack of older workers -- anyone over 40 -- even being talked about, let alone being addressed?
Such a conversation is long overdue, he says. "In Silicon Valley there is one underrepresented group in particular — one that by law is entitled to fair treatment in hiring and employment practices — that not only has failed to enter this conversation, but is often regarded as anathema when it comes to headcount." Old people. Nobody wants to hire us.
Those of us in our 50s and 60s are well aware that age discrimination has been rampant for some time now and it doesn't just limit itself to the tech sector. The recession packed a wallop to many older workers and a good number never fully recovered financially or professionally. What's most perplexing is why those people can't get a foot back in the workforce door even now. The one obvious answer is this: They are seen as old. They send resumes in to jobs and just never hear back. And tech companies, yep, they're the worst.
Levy observes that when someone older lands a spot at a tech company, it's because they're an industry rock star. "That candidate is not simply one of a group of people who applied for the job, or was recommended by a employee, though God knows what 25-year-old would suggest his or her company hire someone old enough to be their dad or mom," Levy wrote. "It is someone whose accomplishments are pretty well-known, a person who, when the hiring is announced, generates giddy chatter in the Slack channel. Wow, we hired…X??!??)," he said.
But Joe Blow, a 55-year-old hard-working, non-rock star kind of guy? Joe, so goes the rap, won't be a good fit in the corporate culture. Basically that means that in a corporate culture that caters to recent college graduates, having free beer taps may matter more than having a company match for the 401k. Levy says he personally skipped his company's scavenger hunt and I've been known to take a pass on Karaoke night myself. But does that really make us less valuable workers?
In the places where Levy and I work, gray hairs are in short supply. And here's the short list of what companies miss by excluding people our age: a mix of perspectives, our institutional knowledge, our life and industry experience, and most important -- an understanding of what products and services people over 30 might actually need and want to buy. Who knows the needs of baby boomers better than baby boomers? And for the record, we're still the generation with the money. By 2017, almost half of the U.S. adult population will be 50 or older and they will control a full 70 percent of the disposable income, says data tracker Nielsen.
Imagine what innovative tech products could be developed if anyone actually understood our issues and needs. While the super-sized iPhone6 Plus probably was developed so Millennials could play games and watch Netflix, it has become the phone-of-choice for my generation. Want to know why? Because the screens are big enough for us to actually read emails and texts. A 20-something wouldn't necessarily understand that older eyes need bigger type and this phone was an answer to our prayers.
Levy points to a Payscale report and says “The typical tech employee wasn’t around for the original release of Star Wars.” As of last year, the average age at Google was 30; at LinkedIn, 29, and Apple, 31. Facebook, who is speeding along the path to control the Internet and all our lives within it, has the youngest staff age average of all: 28. Yet 56 percent of all boomers who are online use the site. Like the memories feature? Someone's mother probably suggested it.
Levy would like tech companies to start owning up to the prejudice they have against older workers. Why not add age in their diversity reports so we can measure how well they are doing? How about mandating the Rooney Rule for tech companies? The 2003 rule, which has its roots in the NFL, began when Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney mandated that every team with a head coach opening had to interview at least one minority candidate for the job. Make tech companies interview not just one woman and one minority, but also one person over age 50. Who knows? Maybe even Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg -- who once famously offended when he said "Young people are just smarter” -- will lead the bandwagon, putting a little Facebook employment behind his swift apology.
But for now, the problem that Levy would like to tackle is changing the minds of people who don't even see the underrepresentation of older workers in the tech industry as an issue. Our club certainly could use a few more members.
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