Ageism And The Nomadic Demographic

EDIT: I’ve discovered that this post has been linked by authors looking to announce that ageism doesn’t exist, with this page held as some sort of citation. To be clear, ageism absolutely exists, and this post was merely an observation that many tech companies in the valley are very young, and their natural draw will be the young. It was an observation about those companies, and not the industry in general. I actually posted it because I’d noticed some trying to justify ageism under the notion that if the valley is young, therefore it is a proven tactic to cargo cult on (e.g. Google is a young company. Google is successful. Therefore you should hire young).

Ageism across the industry is absolutely rampant. A lot of justifications and rationalizations usually appear, but the root cause is generally a relic of the classic workplace hierarchy — traditionally the boss was the guy who was there the longest, who lorded over people who were there a shorter period of time, and those people oversaw people there the least amount of time. The traditional mechanism of advancement was simply “being there the longest”. A cultural remnant of this history is that people feel uncomfortable having a manager younger than them, and vice versa, so the situation is often avoided (in the former case by avoidance, derision, and defiance, and in the latter by constructing rationalizations for why you really should hire new grads). In popular culture the whole notion of a younger boss is the source of countless sitcom and movie storylines, the notion being so alien.

And this is a serious problem with the industry. We are in a domain where someone can choose to stay heavily focused on the code, and then find themselves in an uncomfortable position where they can’t find a job because hiring agents are uncomfortable about the notion that their manager will be younger than them. Yet these are parallel tracks. The whole “superior” notion does not apply to this industry (e.g. in many industries the manager is literally the most experienced in the realm. That is not necessary or even desired in technology).

A New Republic article titled Silicon Valley’s Brutal Ageism has been making the rounds for the past few months. It’s the sort of anxiety-inducing material that leads developers to make reactive, poorly considered decisions.

During the big “offshoring” panic of the early 2000s, for instance, countless developers were sure they needed to rush into project management to protect themselves from the growing invasion of low priced labor in other countries, the premise being that they’d find a niche between the Western customer and the foreign workers. The result was a glut of project managers (while various certification concerns enjoyed great financial success), a lot of people whose career path was suddenly very rocky, while the industry here is bigger and more dynamic than it’s ever been.

In response to ageism concerns, many developers make the mistake of thinking that moving to “management” is a necessary step by their 30s. Management, it goes, is the domain of the gray beards and receding hairlines, leaving the tech for the young. The particularly foolhardy (or, more often, those who fail out of software development and flail for an alternative) make the mistake of assuming that management is the end-goal of a software development career, rather than a parallel path.

Ageism is a concern largely driven by anecdotes. Anecdotes are interesting and entertaining, and can be compelling in concert with conclusive stats, but without those they are seldom illuminating or indicative of much of anything. You can find people — many people — who will claim every manner of ill or unfair treatment, certain of the cause, when often it’s something quite entirely different (including personal failure). Throw a rock and you’ll find a white male sure that they’re being kept down by women and minorities, for instance. Every failure in their life the result of those groups.

The article, for instance, holds the statement “We Want People Who Have Their Best Work Ahead of Them, Not Behind Them.” as indicative of ageism. Is it really? Who doesn’t want to think that their best work is ahead of them? Such a “we’re not on the lazy decline here” isn’t ageist at all, but instead is aspirational and a call to the motivated.

That isn’t to say that ageism doesn’t exist — it certainly does, and there are people in this world plying every form of bigotry — but the people reading the tea leaves usually aren’t painting a very complete picture.

For instance, why are so many silicon valley companies so young?

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Consider companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook: companies that expanded at torrential paces, all requiring their new recruits to move to Silicon Valley. Who are the pool of candidates they are realistically drawing from, outside of the relatively small number of available candidates in the area?

The proven professional developers across the continent? Seldom1. The family man or woman? Nope. Anyone with any roots anywhere? Not really.

The sort of people who are going to pick up and relocate to Silicon Valley speculatively are the nomadic, which in Western culture are generally new graduates: People who often already live away from their roots when they moved to student housing, and have little stopping them from moving anywhere. More often than not it is males.

Which is exactly what fed the headcount explosion of these companies. It isn’t the best of the best, but is the best of the best willing to pick up and move to a specific geographic region.

The same sort of sampling bias can be seen among various seed accelerators: when your funding offer is less than many established professional’s credit card limit, you’re probably only going to draw interest from the very young.

There is nothing surprising about these companies or accelerators being dominated by the young, and from that their culture and standards being dictated by the young. And as they stabilize, the average age edges ever upwards, exactly as it has at other hyper-successful tech companies such as Apple and Microsoft. People in various positions will adjust their dogma as it goes.

1 – I am, to some degree, using the same “anecdotes as proof” angle, having been courted by a number of Silicon Valley firms over the years, but having no interest in leaving Canada year-round outside of impossibly large offers: So long as those companies ply the last centuries work habits (e.g. pile lots of people into a building and call it an empire) they will have little appeal to many. Of course there are people in similar situations who took the offer, being at the right time and place in their career, but I have to think that’s the minority.