Weaned On Youth, Silicon Valley Keeps Older Workers On Sidelines

Writer Noam Scheiber talks about a predominant strain of ageism in the tech industry, a Silicon Valley culture which often prizes youth as commodity and relegates older workers to token roles.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

I'm Audie Cornish and now, to All Tech Considered.

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CORNISH: Botox, plastic surgeries, an obsession with youth - we're not talking about Hollywood. That's the new culture of Silicon Valley, according to writer Noam Scheiber. His article for the New Republic is titled "The Brutal Ageism of Tech." And it describes how the infusion of power and money in Silicon Valley has sidelined older workers.

Noam Scheiber joins me in the studio. Welcome.

NOAM SCHEIBER: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: All right. So to begin, give us some context. Just who is considered old in Silicon Valley?

SCHEIBER: I think it's helpful to break Silicon Valley down broadly into two groups: the engineers and the entrepreneurs. On the engineering side, 35 really starts to be considered quite old. The computer languages change so quickly that people are quickly perceived to be out of date. On the entrepreneur side, people value experience a little more but there, even 40 and over tends to be perceived as quite old.

CORNISH: Now, what did this mean for the workers you encounter who were above these cutoff ages? I mean, what did you see them doing to try and make things easier for themselves?

SCHEIBER: Well, it ranged quite dramatically; from people, you know, trying to be hip at work - roller hockey, play music, guitar with young colleagues, to actually getting Botox treatment. I talked to a cosmetic surgeon in San Francisco, Dr. Seth Matarasso, who by his own calculation, is the second-largest dispenser of Botox in the world. His clientele is varied, but there is a very large tech-industry component to it - things just to subtly make them look a little more youthful so they feel more comfortable surrounded by people 15, 20 years younger than them at the office.

CORNISH: And then, you know, this is not just about workers. You write, also, about venture capital - which surprises me 'cause I think of venture capital maybe being older folks, right? I mean, why would they discriminate against their own?

SCHEIBER: They are older folks. But you have to keep in mind that venture capital investing, investing in startups, is incredibly risky. And so in order to sustain themselves, they have to have enormous returns on the handful of successful investments. And when they think enormous returns, they tend to think young people. If they look at a more experienced person, they think, well, if they were really capable of returning a hundred or a thousand times my investment, they would have done it by now.

CORNISH: And to play devil's advocate here - I mean, is there not something to be said for innovation coming from youthful minds and that in this industry, in particular, that's of high value?

SCHEIBER: There is no question that young people can be a source of innovation. But I think venture capitalists who fund these ideas, and who fund these companies, often overlook the fact that it takes 10 or 15 years of living in the world, interacting in the world, to understand where the biggest needs are, where the biggest problems are; and the most efficient ways to attack it. And I think that's what older entrepreneurs offer. And time and again, when you see really revolutionary innovation, it tends to come from those people.

CORNISH: Now, in your view, what's the net effect of this ageism on products and ideas? And what does this mean for the ideas that are generated out of these technology firms?

SCHEIBER: Well, look, I think the problem when you empower very young people with a lot of money and a lot of the resources, is that you end up getting solutions that are responses to problems that young people have. I write about one company in my piece, called Outbox, that received $5 million in venture capital money. And the business model of this company was to send Toyota Priuses around to people's snail mailboxes, pick up their mail, scan it, and send it to their email inbox. Now, this is a product that would potentially have very high appeal if you're 25 and you work all the time, and you're never home.

CORNISH: You never check your mailbox.

SCHEIBER: Right.

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SCHEIBER: But for most of us, that is not the highest need on our list of priorities. And it's not surprising that the company folded not very long into its life.

CORNISH: Noam Scheiber - he writes for The New Republic. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

SCHEIBER: Thanks or having me. I enjoyed it.

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