Silicon Valley’s Age Problem Illustrates Its Blind Spots


Silicon Valley has an age problem.

It’s actually become a medium-sized problem lately, with Google recently paying out $11 millionOpens a new window to some 200 job seekers who were over 40 at the time they applied to work at the tech giant and later alleged age discrimination when they weren’t hired.

Google said it didn’t have a problem and insists it doesn’t have a problem. But look at the ranks of Silicon Valley. No, not just the executives. It’s a tough market for anyone older than a millennial.

In another recent lawsuit, IBM admitted to firing 100,000 peopleOpens a new window to replace them with young workers in order to give the appearance of being trendy. According to news reportsOpens a new window , the company’s vice president said the firm had a talent recruitment problem and that it wanted to shake off its appearance as an “old fuddy-duddy organization.”

In other words, it fired older workers to bring in younger workers and also to appeal to younger workers by allegedly offering a younger working environment.

Bigger issues at play

So it’s a problem. But here’s the thing about the age problem: As with any discrimination case, it’s symptomatic of a broader set of issues within an industry. Sure, sometimes age discrimination gets a free pass among the ranks of outrage generators who influence opinions and, by extension, reputations in the public sphere.

In an age of fierce identity branding — think of Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad campaign,Opens a new window for example — the case for shunning age discrimination isn’t as loud as other voices.

And maybe that’s why the age discrimination issue doesn’t really get legs in a social media environment dominated by, well, everyone not older than a millennial. But the thing with discrimination is that it’s not a reputation blemish, just as promoting diversity isn’t simply a marketing ploy.

Even in a time when open-mindedness is unabashedly cool, there’s much more to be gained from a diverse workforce than just a slick image.

Seeking, encouraging and, yes, preserving diversity in the workplace is good HR practice independent of what’s trending. In almost any industry, but especially in the tech industry with its influence over nearly every aspect of modern life, having a broad set of experience to draw on can enrich company capacity.

As I’ve said beforeOpens a new window , leveraging the benefits of an intergenerational workforce takes some effort and explicit strategies, like mixing up habits such as assigning tech-heavy tasks to younger employees and expecting older employees to take on more of the organizational issues.

Diversity = Good Business

It bears repeating: having a diverse workplace is good business.

Going back to the bigger picture, though: The age discrimination cases marring the tech industry are indicative of a deeper problem, which is a sense of seeing the people who make up the workplace as a transactional value. As in, these “x” type of employees are good for the company because they lend a sheen of diversity, whereas these “y” type of employees project the wrong image.

As any good HR manager knows, the value of an employee consists of the skills and enthusiasm they bring to their position — their reliability, trustworthiness and commitment to the principles of the company. Employees who come from different backgrounds bring important perspectives, which is an asset — and recruiters should work hard and use well-tested tools to overcome implicit hiring bias that perpetuates cycles of unearned privilege.

But reducing any employee to what their identity says about the company is a serious HR blunder. Silicon Valley shouldn’t want a diverse employee pool because it’s trendy. That’s what the age discrimination cases reveal: how precarious tech’s commitment to diversity is in the first place.