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Face Time: Eternal Youth Has Become a Growth Industry in Silicon Valley 

Tuesday, Aug 12 2014
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He pauses dramatically. "I can't tell you how many people 'liked' that picture. I do in fact look like the very best version of that gawky, geeky, 13-year-old kid."

Granted, lessons in personal branding don't come cheap. Rosenfeld's program starts "in the four figures" (he declines to state exact costs) and requires that clients build two "wardrobe capsules" — one spring, one fall — in the course of the year. In the interim, he'll connect them to a network of tailors, hair-dressers, photographers, and optometrists, improve their overall presentation, and dispense regular advice on how to be fabulous. He offers three-day boot camp retreats in high-end department stores, "which is out in the wild for some people," he says.

He's just one in a bevy of entrepreneurs who've alighted on this new side of the vanity industry.

Because Silicon Valley is mostly male, and mostly composed of engineers and MBA-types, it's little surprise that the terms "beauty" and "image" have now been conflated with "personal branding." Yet beauty itself is a growth industry, says Karen Grant, vice president and global beauty industry analyst for the New York-based marketing research firm NPD Group. And men, in particular, are becoming a vital consumer demographic. "We live in a world of selfies, and that's elevated expectations," Grant says. "You're seen before you're heard."

While age discrimination exists in many industries, it seems more ubiquitous — or at least more obvious — in tech. But that's no accident. Many of these companies are designed for a fast turnaround rather than a long lifespan. They demand workers who are young and adventurous, rather than those who are experienced at developing incremental growth.

"In 2006, the average age of incoming CEOs in Fortune 500 companies was 55," says Kjerstin Gruys, a Stanford post-doctoral fellow who specializes in sociology and gender. "In 2010, they were 53. But in the tech industry, there was this huge surge of visibility of CEOs in their late 20s and early 30s."

That's certainly true of Google, which was launched by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who were Stanford Ph.D. students at the time. It's true of Facebook, whose then-20-year-old founder, Mark Zuckerberg, started an empire from his Harvard dorm room. It's true of Twitter, whose chairman and co-founder Jack Dorsey was 30 when he helped start the company. And it's true of Snapchat, whose 24-year-old czar Evan Spiegel was humiliated this June when press outlets published racy emails he'd written as a Stanford frat boy, just five years earlier.

Even when they're walloped by scandal, these newly minted Valley oligarchs are still setting norms for the culture at large. Many of them learned the hot operating systems du jour when they were still in college, and wrote their business plans then. They never had to pass through the feudal order that exists in law or banking or finance, or any other traditional white collar industry.

That new paradigm manifests particularly in the startup market where companies have to court investment in order to survive. In the old days, most venture capitalists' goal was to steer a young company toward an IPO; thus they'd be more inclined to work with older entrepreneurs who'd have more credibility in Wall Street. Now the entire model has changed, says San Francisco employment lawyer Cliff Palefsky, who specializes in employment cases. "The goal isn't to go public," Palefsky says, "the goal is to sell the company. And as a result, VCs are happy to give some rope to younger folks with an idea."

Oftentimes, he adds, the investors will seed the business, put themselves on the board, and act as elders. "Then they'll hire a babysitter CFO and then find a way to sell the company without ever putting an older face on it."

In fact, author Farrell says, the new generation of Silicon Valley investors, many of whom are young arrivistes themselves, might actually be more inclined to lavish money on a 20-year-old with a good elevator pitch than on a grizzled 45-year-old. Older people talk too slow, he points out. They might not be up on the hottest programs, or the latest slang. They might not seem equipped to sell a company.

To Gruys, that's an odd inversion of power: There was a point not too long ago when gray hair gave off an aura of gravitas and younger employees were underlings.

"At the time this change started to materialize in tech, there were plenty of men in their late 30s who had secure jobs, weren't planning to retire at age 38, and weren't anticipating the need to look younger," she says. "These are men who've been privileged their entire lives, who weren't expecting to be old until they left the workforce," she says.

But in an economy dominated by small entrepreneurs and controlled by fickle benefactors, they're not the privileged class anymore. They might even be an impediment, according to Burstein, author of Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaping Our World.

"When you're in a sandbox, saying 'Let's build something, let's play around,' you don't really want people who have lots of experience," Burstein explains. "You don't want lots of legal people. You don't want people who are saying, 'No, you can't do this.'"

He chews on the thought for a moment. "Maybe you want them as mentors," he concedes.

By many measures, the Valley's enshrinement of youth is also an enshrinement of transience — of the quick sell, of the soon-to-be-obsolete programming system, of the startup that might fail tomorrow. New business models reward the young and flighty rather than the experienced and stable. For the older people who have built up thick résumés in tech, but who say their experience is no longer valued, this cultural shift can be devastating.

One 59-year-old IT worker, who wouldn't give his name since he's looking for a job, says he put himself through the University of Chicago selling Macintosh computers and spent 23 years working as a network engineer in various capacities. Now he can't find work, doesn't qualify for credit cards, and doesn't have enough money to pay his next cellphone bill. He stopped putting his University of Chicago graduation date on his résumé, for fear of age discrimination.


About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.

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