Ageism in Silicon Valley has been all over the news lately. “The Brutal Ageism of Tech,” a March 2014 feature story in the New Republic, noted that some male techies, still in their 20s, are contemplating Botox and hair transplants, while middle-aged engineers, a swelling cohort of “highly trained, objectively talented, surpassingly ambitious workers,” are being sidelined “for reasons no one can rationally explain.” Meanwhile, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story titled “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem.”
Prejudice is irrational. The underlying industry premise that youth drives technological innovation is baseless. Age discrimination is illegal. And it’s not new, so why the media attention now? Because for the first time in their lives, people at the top of the food chain—smart, skilled, straight, well-paid, nondisabled, white guys—are experiencing discrimination. It happens because they’re old enough to have kids. Or mortgages. Or receding hairlines.
In a terrific piece in New York magazine called “Silicon Valley Disrupts Discrimination: Now It’s for Middle-Aged White Guys, Too,” Ann Friedman writes, “Welcome, men, to the world of being hyperaware of how you’re perceived, every moment of every workday.” That would be the world of women huddled behind office doors, hooked up to breast pumps, trying to play down the fact that they’re parents, not whiz kids, or reluctantly learning golf as a way to meet male clients. As she notes, the burden of trying to conform to the dominant culture applies doubly and triply for people of color, gay people and people with disabilities. Friedman also notes that when women face bias, we tell them to lean in, and when it happens to people of color, we barely notice, but when white men confront biases, we look for what it reveals about the bigger system.
Ageism is still so unexamined that age doesn’t make Friedman’s short list of discriminatory categories. For her, the big win in all the media coverage isn’t a focus on ageism, but a fresh take on “now-familiar Silicon Valley sexism.” It never dawns on most of us that the experience of reaching old age—or middle age, or even just aging past youth—can be better or worse depending on the culture in which it takes place. (Hint: steer clear of the United States, especially Hollywood and Silicon Valley.) Like racism and sexism, ageism is a socially constructed idea that has changed over time and that serves a social and economic purpose—to legitimize and sustain inequalities between groups. These prejudices aren’t about how we look, they’re about people in power assigning meaning to how we look. In this case, older tech guys have lost their grip on power merely because they are no longer in their 20s.
Friedman suggests that Silicon Valley may inadvertently have produced an innovation here by “disrupting” discrimination itself. In industry parlance, a disruptive innovation unexpectedly displaces an established (older) technology. For the first time, people are looking at the underlying values of tech culture and questioning its obsession with youth-and-hipness. The Bay Area’s extreme manifestation of this mind-set doesn’t make it any more palatable than garden-variety discrimination on the basis of having dark skin or a wheelchair or a vagina or actual gray hair, but that’s what finally garnered some attention. The coverage is revealing cracks in the “meritocracy” that has served this elite group so well on all other fronts. Let’s hope it jimmies them wide open and brings ageism into the discussion.