Tuesday, September 20, 2016

High Tech = Age Discrimination

No One in Tech Will Admit that They're Old
Caroline Fairchild Interviews Dan Lyons

September 18, 2016 -- Dan Lyons knew his book would put him at risk. A former tech journalist and author, he’d written plenty of things that had made people angry at him — this was the guy, after all, who famously authored a blog that mocked Steve Jobs  — but this was the first time he’d do something that had the power to really change his own prospects.

The book was “Disrupted” and it was a hilarious take on his 20 months working as a marketing fellow at startup Hubspot. Specifically, he focused on the fact that everyone seemed and acted so young, which is exactly what the company banked on. The difference in age between his new colleagues — Dan was 52 when he took the job — would lead to a series of ridiculous stories that propelled the book into a New York Times best-seller. A reviewer at the Los Angeles Times called it  "the best book about Silicon Valley today." (Hubspot CEO Dharmesh Shah challenged Lyons’ take on the company in a LinkedIn post titled, Undisrupted.)

Those accolades go far, but there’s also been a darker side.

“I knew I would just be seen as the old guy after it published,” he said. “That’s the hole I put myself in. Now, people see stories about depressed older workers, and they immediately think of me.”

Lyons might be the voice of tech’s older worker, but he’s definitely not alone in his worries. While the median age in the U.S. workforce is 42, it’s closer to 31 in the tech industry. As Bloomberg recently reported, more older workers are speaking out about what they see as inherent bias against them. While the discussion on both racial and gender bias in tech has become mainstream, age bias is just beginning to emerge as the next hot topic for workplace equality.

“You never want to think you’re old,” said Lyons. “If you are female, you know you are female. If you are black, you know you are black. But if you are old, well, what is old?”

Lyons and I ran into each other at the CED Tech Venture Conference in North Carolina. After working for more than a year as a co-producer and writer on HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” Lyons is now touring the country speaking out about age bias as well as other topics that are important to the tech industry. In an interview, we talked about why companies alone can’t fix the age issue — and I couldn’t help but grill him on his Silicon Valley (the show) work.

Edited excerpts:

Caroline Fairchild: Bloomberg just came out with a feature on ageism in tech. After your book, how are you continuing to think about the issue?

Dan Lyons: I don’t know how to continue talking about the problem without sounding like a broken record. I get frustrated with the coverage of diversity issues. Every year Apple, Google and Facebook put out these diversity reports and show that they haven’t made any progress. [Editor’s note: You can find LinkedIn’s here.] I don’t know how the media could cover that in different ways to move the ball forward. We are all aware of it, but you risk getting into the realm of cheesiness if you write a story about that company that took a bet on an older worker and things went great. Then you feel like you are doing infomercials.

CF: Why is covering age in tech challenging, but we have reporters covering gender and race in tech for many publications?

DL:Age bias just gets treated differently than the others. Nobody even bothers to lie about it. It is just taken for granted and accepted: “You are 50. You suck. You can’t do tech stuff.” You see all these people doing things like only putting their last 10 years of work on their resume or coloring their hair. I think there is a stigma around age and our culture. I think there is an element of shame about it. People won’t even join the AARP because of the stigma attached to it.

CF: Do you think that stigma associated with age is strongest in the tech industry?

DL: Yes. Mark Zuckerberg said that young people are smarter. Now, he said that a long time ago, he probably would be more diplomatic and discreet about it now, but I bet he still believes it. I think in tech there is a plentiful supply of people in their twenties and they are all looking for work. It may be that we are in this period where technology is erasing jobs faster than we are creating them, so we have a net loss of jobs. So that means that you have a surplus of workers. If that’s the case, why wouldn’t you just hire people in their twenties who are cheaper and younger and don’t have distractions?

CF: Do you think different generations inherently like working with one another?

DL: I like working with younger people, I don’t know if they like working with me. There are some older people who probably hate working with younger workers. I think younger people don’t want to boss you around because you remind them of their parents. That is awkward. They also assume you don’t know how to do things. There is almost an awkwardness, because people don’t even want to have the conversation. If you and I were working together, it would likely be hard for us to have a conversation about what it’s like for me to work with you and what it’s like for you to work with me. But I think we have been sold this big bag of bullshit about millennials. I don’t think they are so different. I think we are all pretty alike. We are in different life stages, but I don’t think at the end of the day that we have different DNA. But millennials get described as a different species.

CF: So do you think that young workers in tech should be afraid about what will happen to them when they get older?

DL: Yes. You should read [LinkedIn Co-Founder] Reid Hoffman’s book The Alliance. The message is that you are going to have a new job every two years. For employers, it is a good thing to have a dial-up and dial-down workforce that allows them to hire for immediate needs. It offers much more flexibility. It could work, but not with the way companies are structured now. Companies have this 20th-century infrastructure around them. Employers are trying to create a better world, but transitions are painful. [Editor's note: Reid and his co-authors responded to Dan's critique in their April 2016 article, "Un-Disrupted: What 'The Alliance' Actually Says About Employment."]

People in my age came to the workforce with these expectations for how the workforce would be and it changed halfway through our careers. We will get to a point where we can act as freelancers at a company on an engagement basis almost like consultants do. But right now, the problem is that physically plugging and unplugging into a job is such a pain. Our benefits are tied to our employer. We need societal and structural changes so that changing jobs doesn’t interrupt your benefits. When you have children, that disruption of having a new health insurance company is a pain of the ass.

CF: I’m interested in your thoughts about the debate raging around Facebook’s responsibility as a news provider.

DL: I think Facebook’s role in the news is huge. I’ve noticed in this election cycle that I get a lot of my news from Facebook. I think there is this flattening effect where the source of the story is small or not there. Then you click on the story, and it is clearly just partisan politics, not objective news. Some random site that didn’t do any reporting is promoted on Facebook with equal weight as The Washington Post or The New York Times. It is all the same, but they are getting worked up over not credible news. It is very hard as a reader to then decide what sources he or she should give credibility to. I find myself getting halfway down the rabbit hole and then realizing that the story isn’t good.

CF: Speaking of politics, what are your thoughts on tech leaders like Peter Thiel and Meg Whitman talking openly about politics?

DL: I think if you have a lot of money, you think you should be able to run the world. People in Silicon Valley are like people everywhere. They have feelings about politics. Most people think Silicon Valley leaders lean left in most ways, but not every way. Apple not paying its taxes is not a left-wing thing. I think it is normal. These leaders have a big megaphone and a lot of money – it makes sense.

= = = = = = = = = = dynamite comment to the above discussion: = = = = = = = = = =

It's not just a bias, it's becoming a requirement for some companies as I've recently learned. In my recent job search I've learned that many companies actually make it a job REQUIREMENT in their job descriptions for a candidate to have earned his/her degree "recently" ie. within the last 1 to 2 years. To me, that seems like much more than a bias ... verging on the border of discrimination. The days of continuous self improvement have been replaced with the need for self re-invention or self re-generation which requires the need to attain another degree half way through one's career to meet newly implemented job "requirements". For most, this will require, either eliminating the prospect of having a family or abandoning family time and devotion in order to pursue self-renewal. The days of loyalty and long term careers have been replaced by the world's elite with short term return on investment. The humanity of work has been replaced with a mentality of using people as monitory assets that are more easily traded on the job market much like a stock is traded on wall street, rather than nurtured and developed to their full potential. Case in point ... I continuously attempted to utilize in-house training to rejuvenate and improve my skill set to match the needed skills I perceived over the past 3 years ... what my company markets to recently graduating prospective employees as a fringed benefit ... only to have said training "opportunities" cancelled over and over again due to "low enrollment". Unfortunately, these skills were obviously being exploited from new hires who had been trained while they were working on their degrees. Given the fact that the skills in these courses have been listed alongside the "recent graduate" job requirement on the latest job postings, I perceive this as a major contributor to the lack of enrollment in, and elimination of said "continuous improvement training opportunities". My advice to recent grads ... demand the monetary value for these "benefits" in your salary compensation that your employers would rather taut as indirect "total compensation value" of your employment "benefits package" ... chances of actually receiving these ghost incentives are dwindling further and further. Unfortunately, until the government protects against such "age biases" and treats them for what they truly are, which is more like discrimination, then no one is safe from being exploited in this way.

--Thomas Stratton
Engineer at Caterpillar
Actively Seeking New Opportunities

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