One of the things that irritates me about Silicon Valley culture is its blatant ageism. I dislike it for several reasons:
- Let’s start with the easy one: it’s illegal. As an employer you should be looking for someone qualified to do the job, not someone of a specific age. While certain job requirements may end up setting a de facto lower bound on age (e.g., it’s hard to have a top MBA and 5 years of second-line management experience before you’re 30), age is not something you should talk about in the recruiting or management process. People who would never say “let’s go find a Baptist to do this job” or “let’s go find a woman” will say things like “let’s go find a 32-year-old,” seemingly unaware it’s the exact same kind of discrimination.
- The media, probably for the simple reason that it sells more newspapers, drives a distorted perception of age and entrepreneurship. They love the oneupsmanship of “you found a 17-year-old entrepreneur, well we found a 13-year-old one” (who, by the way, is also a social media consultant). They love to write stories like How This Kid Made $60M in 18 Months, despite the fact they aren’t true. They continue to both directly and indirectly promote the age-entrepreneurship myth despite the fact that the average age of technology company founders is 39.
- In addition to over-promoting the whiz kids, the media almost never does any follow-up, telling us what became of the wunderkinds ten or twenty years later. That’s why I was surprised to see this story in today’s New York Times, For A Mogul Money and Magic Have Limits, which details the dog’s breakfast whiz kid Halsey Minor has made of things since making a fortune off CNet during the Web 1.0 era. Find the lessons in this quote: “he thought he was a billionaire, spending far more than he had … but he really was a multi-millionaire always thinking I’m going to make the big score.”
- The asymmetric media coverage gives people a distorted sense of reality: (1) that they must start a company before they’re 30 or they never will, (2) that after 30 they are washed up, (3) that the odds of succeeding in a venture are way higher than they are, (4) that skills are more the determinants of success than luck, and (5) that youth/energy are more important than experience.
- Point 4 is the Fooled by Randomness effect. We don’t worship lottery winners, we just consider them lucky. In business, we tend to equate financial success with skill and further sense that each idiosyncrasy is a cause of success. If Google has free lunch, we’ll have free lunch. If Steve Jobs wears jeans and a black t-shirt, then we should wear jeans and black t-shirts. All notions of luck and causality get confused in the business media.
- Regarding point 5, I’d like to ask the freshly-minted MBAs in my readership to ask themselves a question: do you believe that you will be a better manager now or twenty years in the future when you still have the same degrees, the same intelligence, but twenty years of management experience?
But the thing that most amazes me about Silicon Valley ageism is that it’s often practiced by the 40+ crowd. Here, neither self-interest nor logic prevail, just — I suspect — intellectual laziness.