Silicon Valley: No Old People Allowed?

ByDaniel A. Medina

Silicon Valley has a global image as an innovation hub where technologists of all ages can come develop and create — but the area's benefits may now be reserved for only a privileged few. According to a recent report by the California Employment Development Department, the great majority of IT-related occupations are occupied by those in the 25-44 age group, and software application and web developers are even younger, which critics say points to systemic age discrimination at the industry’s largest companies. The revelations were publicized in a story in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle, where industry experts and analysts painted a picture of a Silicon Valley where youth trumps experience.

But is this the right strategy for the industry?

This reluctance to hire older employees has proved successful in the short-term but could become a failing long-term strategy. If the Dot-Com bubble and bust of the early 2000s can serve as a model, shrewd managerial expertise and a longtime balanced growth strategy can steer a company through the volatile tech industry more so than the latest great idea or gadget. Despite these risks, however, companies continue to hire almost exclusively young people.

As the Chronicle reported, amidst thousands of layoffs in recent years, jobs for skilled IT senior level professionals in the Bay Area remain in short supply despite a rapid influx of young foreign workers into coveted positions at giants like Google and Facebook in the same time period. Chosen less for their experience and more for their youth and willingness to accept lower salaries, these developers and engineers are brought in, experts say, because of their ability to code, program, and design at a seemingly endless pace.

"I want to stress the importance of being young and technical," Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg, 28, told an audience at a Stanford University startup conference in 2007. "Young people are just smarter. Why are most chess masters under 30? I don't know. Young people just have simpler lives. We may not own a car. We may not have family. Simplicity in life allows you to focus on what's important."

What is important to Zuckerberg and other industry titans is increasing profits through apps, social media, and cloud technology — all relatively nascent technologies that require expertise from only those with the most “recent skills,” which leaves out most senior-level managers who have technical experience. Additionally, as Zuckerberg referenced in his Stanford address, young people have “simpler lives” and are unlikely to be married or have a family when they arrive to the Bay Area. This leaves them with less “baggage” and ripe for potential workplace exploitation.  

Housed in dazzling “campuses,” Google, Apple, Facebook, and others market themselves as office-space “incubators” where workers can explore their ideas in a stress-free environment. Beneath the façade, however, are overworked employees whose 12-14 hour days leave them little time for anything else. Even older employees who may possess the same skills as their younger peers are unable to compete, in most cases, because of their familial commitments.

By excluding a generation of older and more seasoned professionals, Silicon Valley is defying its very core ideals of inclusion, which points to a larger problem within the industry. Profits and power now drive the discourse as evidenced by the industry’s increasing political presence, sending lobbyists and countless funds to Washington to influence policy. It has joined the “system” it often rejected in its early days and, as the NSA’s PRISM program revealed, it has even worked with those within the national-security apparatus to spy on Americans. And has done so with its reputation relatively unscathed and, until recently, with its profits intact.

Growth has skyrocketed due to insatiable demand from a rising consumer class in the world’s leading developing economies, from China to India to South Africa to Brazil. But, as growth has begun to slow even in these countries, companies might begin to feel the pinch and in those precarious periods of instability, it will require the skills and experience of these forsaken seasoned IT professionals and executives to avoid the fate of their brethren just over a decade ago.