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

Tuesday, Aug 12 2014
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To him, the problem isn't that old people are perceived as slow, or overly cautious, or pedantic. It's that having more job experience makes a person more expensive, and tech companies just aren't willing to pay.

"They'll look at my salary history, and think that if I take a lower-paying job I'll turn around and leave," the man says, adding that in recent years, he's mostly taken short-term contract gigs that don't provide job security or benefits. "Basically, these companies are doing labor arbitrage," he says, explaining that big companies routinely hire contractors for specialty IT work, and that those contractors, in turn, farm the jobs out to a contingency workforce. The primary contractor might bill the large company for $135 an hour, but the people actually doing the work will earn half that much.

"What I'm finding is that people want to pay the lowest wages [by] hiring young guys to work full time, and then they'll have guys like me doing the contract work, so they don't have the burden of hiring another full-time permanent."

Because so many companies rely on contract labor for their IT needs, it's become harder for old-school techie fix-it people to find comfortable long-term employment. Even the ones who've managed to get steady work say they've noticed this change. P.J. Connolly, a 50-year-old self-employed contractor in San Francisco, says he's long considered himself an "IT generalist" — someone who can quickly learn a new computer program and help with office snags. He came up in an era when that skill was valuable. Fewer people owned home computers, and many barely understood how to turn them on.

But Connolly says that's not what HR departments are looking for.

"They're comfortable outsourcing what used to be really critical stuff," he explains. "Instead of having someone on-site, you have someone on call who might be responsible for 15 or 20 sites."

The new silo model has made IT work much more transient than it was 20 years ago, and created a market that tends to hurt older workers. It's harder to work as a fly-by-night contractor when you have a mortgage to pay and a family to feed. And evidently, it's harder to compete when you have a breadth of knowledge, rather than an extremely narrow expertise.

But other sides of the tech industry are even more dicey. Startups routinely pay part of their employees' salaries in stock options, presenting a risk that few older workers can afford to take. They also demand that employees stay in the office until the work is done, even if that means sitting at a computer all night. To a 20-year-old, that might be a minor inconvenience. To a 50-year-old, it's just unreasonable.

And then, for those who are lucky enough to snag a coveted in-house gig, there's the awkward, unsavory prospect of being the old guy on campus.

"There's a real collegiate mentality," the ex-Google contractor muses, recalling the months he spent shuttling down the Peninsula in a corporate coach. In the mornings, baby-faced marketers would try to cut deals over their cell phones, often using the same unctuous repartee as AM radio morning hosts. On Friday afternoons, they'd all pop beers open, he says. It became a party bus.

"Hanging out is a lot of what these people do," lawyer Palefsky says. "They're working late, they're living together, they're going out together."

And let's face it, he adds: "You don't want to hang out with your parents."

Palefsky's favorite allegory for Silicon Valley is a Star Trek episode from 1966. It begins when the Enterprise answers an SOS call from a planet that closely resembles Earth, except that its only inhabitants are children. Experiments to prolong life have killed off all the adults, and created a virus that keeps every child in stunted prepubescence for centuries. Each of them contracts a fatal disease upon hitting puberty.

We've seen that fantasy played out over and over again in films like Children of the Corn, about a community of kids whose members are sacrificed on their 19th birthdays, and Logan's Run, about a future society in which people are killed at age 30 to prevent overpopulation.

"It's sort of like that in these companies," Palefsky says. "The kids have all taken charge."

Yet cases of age discrimination — of the kids annihilating the adults, so to speak — are extremely hard to prove. In most cases, older employees aren't getting fired, per se; they're just not getting hired. Usually, there's no need for interviewers to ask age-related questions, since they can see what year a prospective candidate graduated from college.

Wrongful termination is a little more clear-cut, since the employee will have salary records and performance reviews. But even then, it might not be in an employee's best interest to litigate, Palefsky says.

"Once that case becomes public, the company will defend itself by proving your poor performance, which is where your reputation gets injured," he explains. "And then if you're competing for your next job, and you're in the middle of a lawsuit, that doesn't help you get chosen."

In such instances, the best an employee can hope for is a chunky settlement, which is how 90 percent of these cases wind up, Palefsky says. The problem is that settlements don't set legal precedents; thus, they're unlikely to change Valley culture. Two weeks after Peter Taylor filed his age discrimination complaint, Twitter released employee data that revealed a severe lack of diversity among its staff — the company's tech force is 90 percent male while its leadership is 72 percent white. The data report didn't cite age statistics because Twitter doesn't keep track of them, according to a spokesman; neither does Google.

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About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Bio:
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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