Age Bias Persists In Silicon Valley

In Silicon Valley these days, precious few jobs are available for high-tech workers. In the past two years, hundreds of companies have folded and tens of thousands of employees have been laid off. Many of the job hunters who came here in the late 1990s for the dot-com rush are gone.

I’m a technical writer with more than 20 years of experience, and earlier this year, I was laid off for the second time in two years. As I began reviewing job openings in my field, I started by looking at companies I knew. I found one that was seeking a technical writer, so I reviewed the job description, and it closely matched my skills and experience. I clearly met the requirements listed for the job, and I was interested in working for this company.

This wasn’t the first time this company looked like a good match. Two years ago — when I was first laid off — this same company was looking for a technical writer, and I sent it my resume. The company didn’t respond. Nevertheless, I tried again. I sent a resume and cover letter that indicated I was familiar with the company and its products, and that I had lots of experience in its market. My resume testified to it all. I also sent a link to my Web site, which contains information about me and samples of my work.

The company didn’t respond, and I wondered why. It seemed to me that anyone could review the job description, compare it to my resume and see a very good match. So what was the problem?

Based on my job-hunting experience these past two years, I hypothesized that the problem might be simple: I had too much experience. In other words, I was too old. That might be why the company didn’t respond two years ago, and wasn’t responding now.

A ‘Make-Believe’ Me

To test my hypothesis, I created a make-believe person: someone 15 years younger than me, with half my experience. I sent this person’s cover letter and resume by e-mail, and guess what? The company responded to my make-believe person, indicating an interest and asking for additional information.

I responded on behalf of my make-believe person, but told the recruiter I had created this person to test my hypothesis. The recruiter responded by inviting me for an interview; he wanted to find a good reason why I wasn’t a good candidate. I accepted; I wanted to hear why he responded to my make-believe person, but not me.

At the end of the interview, he told me the reason was this: I had had too many jobs. In fact, I had five jobs in the past 20 years; my make-believe person had three jobs in 10 years. My hypothesis was holding up.

This was interesting. When I looked at the company’s Web site for job postings, I noticed that it — like many other high-tech firms in the valley — was actively recruiting college students: people with no work history. It seemed I had too much history.

Why would a company prefer to hire someone with no experience? Why prefer recent college graduates to people with years of experience? And if experience comes with age — and there’s no denying that it does — isn’t this preference in effect age bias?

Isn’t this the same as refusing to hire someone because he or she is black, Jewish or Chinese? Isn’t it like refusing to hire a woman to do a man’s job? It’s illegal.

A Fun Place to Work

Despite the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, age discrimination is thriving in Silicon Valley. To catch a glimpse of it, review the employment sections of the Web sites of Valley high-tech companies. They usually describe a fun workplace. This is clearly an appeal to younger workers, as mature workers tend to be more interested in well-run companies than those emphasizing fun.

You’ll likely find a description of a corporate culture that “promotes dignity and respect for each individual.” In the corporate-culture section, you’ll also find an emphasis on diversity.

Silicon Valley high-tech companies offer workers not only fun work environments, but diversity as well: the opportunity to work with people from faraway lands. The Web site for one well-known firm offers this apt description of diversity:

Walk into the cafeteria on any given day, and you will hear conversations in English, French, German, Russian, Vietnamese, Cantonese, just to name a few.

Here’s how Carly Fiorina, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, emphasizes diversity:

The value proposition for diversity is very clear:

  • Diversity drives creativity.
  • Creativity drives invention.
  • Invention drives profitability and business success.

Silicon Valley high-tech companies advertise their commitment to diversity and equal opportunity. They boast diverse work forces and say their goal is to make them more so. But commitment to diversity veils a preference for young foreign workers. It’s a way of making age discrimination sound like a noble cause.

Visit the campus of some high-tech Silicon Valley company on a workday morning. Watch the workers going to work. You’ll likely notice that the vast majority of the workers are young — in their 20’s and 30’s.

Why would a company prefer younger workers to older workers? Why would it prefer workers with less experience over those with more? I’ve heard all sorts of reasons:

  • Older workers demand higher salaries.
  • Older workers lack energy and enthusiasm.
  • Older workers are too set in their ways.

These sound like the myths that kept women from doing men’s jobs or blacks from supervising whites. These myths are alive in Silicon Valley.

By Mister Thorne

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