In 2007, a fresh-faced Mark Zuckerberg famously ruffled feathers among some older colleagues when he suggested that tech companies should not hire people over 30. “Young people are just smarter,” the Facebook chief executive, then 22, told a crowd at Stanford University.
Nearly a decade after the public gaffe, some say little has changed in terms of how older workers are perceived in the tech industry. Despite making recent attempts to diversify their workforces through aggressive initiatives to attract more women and minorities, Silicon Valley firms still wear their disproportionately young ranks like a badge of honor, proudly flaunting a youth-focused culture in which 28 is seen as middle age and 35 over the hill.
While workers over 40 are protected by federal civil rights laws in the United States, the plight of older employees so rarely enters into conversations about workplace discrimination in tech that one would be forgiven for not realizing it’s an issue at all.
In fact, ageism is very prevalent. Just ask Dan Lyons, a technology journalist and writer for HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” As notably chronicled in his recent best-selling book “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble,” Lyons lost his longtime position at Newsweek magazine when he was in his 50s and decided to switch gears by taking a marketing fellowship at the software company HubSpot. In his book, published earlier this year, Lyons describes the startup’s culture as a frat-like circus filled with Nerf gunfights and hookup dens.
To complement the book, Lyons also wrote a LinkedIn post in which he called out tech industry executives for their defiantly ageist rhetoric, including his old boss at HubSpot, who he said once called gray hair and experience “overrated.” The LinkedIn post went viral, and Lyons said it was at that moment that he realized how widespread the problem really is.
“I got this outpouring of emails from people,” Lyons told Dice Insights. “I don’t mean to toot my own horn—I don’t think it’s that the article was so good. It’s just that there are a s–tload of people out there who experienced this. It was upsetting really.”
We spoke with Lyons last week about what it might take for the tech industry to become more welcoming, but don’t expect a happy ending: The characteristically cynical author said Silicon Valley still has a long way to go.
Dice: With such an emphasis on youth, people forget that older workers are a protected class. Why do you think there’s not more awareness about this issue in the tech industry?
Dan Lyons: I don’t think there’s any real protection, though. That’s the thing. At HubSpot it was like, “We can do whatever we want. We can fire you at will.” HubSpot didn’t even have an HR department for the first six or seven years it was in business. They didn’t really care about that stuff. And let’s face it, everybody knows you can’t really bring an age-discrimination lawsuit. You’ll never win—I don’t think.
Dice: It’s a hard thing to prove. It’s one thing to have a law, but it’s another thing to prove that’s why you were fired.
Dan Lyons: I recognize that there’s a law, but I don’t think tech companies feel it at all. Google just got hit with an age discrimination lawsuit. I don’t know if it’ll go anywhere.
Dice: Is there any remedy to this? Are you hopeful that discussions about this will change the culture?
Dan Lyons: I’m really not. I wish I could say I was. If these guys came to believe that it was in their own self-interest to hire more older workers—if they thought they would make more money with older workers—they would. But I think they’ve just decided they can make more money with young kids. I wish I felt otherwise, but I don’t see any sign of it changing.
Dice: That’s pretty grim.
Dan Lyons: I just did a story for Boston magazine about this topic, and I talked to some tech companies trying to manage what they call a multi-generational workforce. I mean, maybe there’s a glimmer of hope there. There are definitely bigger companies out there—if you have 50,000 employees, you need people of all ages. But overall in tech, with the venture-funded companies, it’s the venture capitalists driving this. And they’re driving it based on their own desire to get the biggest return in the shortest time possible.
Dice: Makes sense. If you’re investing in a company, you want the best return.
Dan Lyons: And as cheaply as possible. I think it starts with those guys—the investors, what they want and what they push for. I think they’ve all decided that the optimal return is young kids: Burn them out, get rid of them, replace them.
Dice: There also seems to be a perception that older people are out of touch when it comes to technology, that they don’t adapt as quickly. Is that a misconception?
Dan Lyons: I think that there’s probably some truth to that. Like all of these things, there’s some grain of truth in it. But I think the way it’s described, people talk about “digital natives” like they’re a different species, like they have some gene. I get that young kids are more comfortable with social media, they’re earlier adopters. But I don’t think that means a social media manager at a company has to be a young person. Where it gets weird is on the issue of engineers. Can an older engineer who already knows a bunch of languages learn Python? I don’t think there’s any other field where people say at age 40 you just can’t understand this technology anymore.
Dice: If you’re in the workforce, you evolve with it. That’s how it works.
Dan Lyons: I guess I’m of two minds about it. On the one hand, I kind of feel like I’m better at what I do now than I was when I was 35, but I also get that I’m probably not as “opted-in.” I haven’t used Snapchat. I don’t give a s–t about it.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.