Silicon Valley's ageist culture bad for workers - and business

Google revealed gender, minority stats but not age demographics

CHICAGO (Reuters) — Google confessed last week that it has a miserable record hiring and retaining women and minorities.

The tech giant responded to public pressure — including protests led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson at the company's annual meeting — by releasing data about the gender and ethnic makeup of its workforce, and the numbers aren't pretty. Women make up just 30 per cent of Google's workforce, and the company is 61 per cent white. Asians represent 30 per cent of Google's workers, but Hispanics represent three percent and African Americans just two per cent.

Yet Google didn't disclose one of the most important diversity statistic about its workers: Age.

Age plays second fiddle in corporate America to racial and gender workforce diversity, but it needs to be addressed. The country is getting grayer; workers need — and want — to stay employed longer.

"It is hard to address these kinds of challenges if you're not prepared to discuss them openly, and with the facts," said Laszlo Bock, Google's senior vice-president of people operations, in a statement accompanying the data release. Yet no facts were forthcoming on age diversity in the data disclosure, or when I asked the company about it directly this week.

Workforce diversity problems aren’t unique to Google, of course. But Silicon Valley has a uniquely youth-oriented work culture, and ageism is rampant. If you doubt it, see Noam Scheiber’s excellent report in the current issue of The New Republic. Scheiber focuses on the difficulty older entrepreneurs have raising money to start businesses, but he also gets into the youth culture of established tech companies that seem to think they're exempt from federal — and California — age discrimination laws.

“Silicon Valley has become one of the most ageist places in America," he writes. "Tech luminaries who otherwise pride themselves on their dedication to meritocracy don’t think twice about deriding the not-actually-old.”

The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967 makes it illegal for employers to discriminate based on age in hiring or firing practices. And in California, workers are protected from age discrimination via the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Google settled a high-profile, multimillion-dollar age discrimination case brought under the California statute in 2011 by Brian Reid, a former professor at Stanford University who holds a PhD in computer science.

Reid was fired by Google at age 54. Neither Google nor Reid would discuss the case, but the court record opens a window into the youth-oriented culture of Silicon Valley companies.

Reid’s lawsuit alleged that supervisors and other employees made derogatory age-related remarks to Reid, including that his opinions and ideas were “obsolete” and “too old to matter,” that he was “slow,” “fuzzy,” “sluggish” and “lethargic.” Other co-workers called him an “old man,” an “old guy,” and an “old fuddy-duddy,” Reid charged.

Fairness issues aside, there's a strong case to be made that a diverse workforce is good for business. Google's Bock made that point last week in an interview about the data release on the PBS NewsHour, noting research showing that product teams are more productive when they are less homogenous.

“There are seven billion potential users on the planet of our product, and we're going develop the best product if they actually have some input into what we are building and we understand where they are coming from,” he said.

Google should be applying this thinking to aging, too. The aging of the global population is creating demand for new products and services at an unprecedented pace. Dick Stroud, an England-based marketing consultant and author specializing in the 50-plus market, has estimated that in 2010, there were 375 million people over age 60 in the United States, Northern Europe, Japan, China and India. That number will nearly double by 2030, and the growth in their spending power will outpace that of every other age group.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” says Katy Fike, a gerontologist and co-founder of Aging 2.0, a business accelerator in San Francisco focused on spurring innovation in products and services for the 50-plus market. “Younger engineers aren’t going to realize that these opportunities exist, or they may not have the right sensitivity on issues like usability challenges or how our senses change with age.

“The people who understand the needs of this market are older adults and those who work with them every day. Companies that aren’t tapping into that aren't going to make the best products.”

Companies that win will have a multigenerational approach, says David DeLong, an expert in organizational behavior whose research is focused on challenges posed by an aging workforce. “Companies that have diverse markets need teams that approach things through a diverse lens,” he says.

DeLong adds that a growing number of his clients — especially in precision manufacturing — recognize a need for age balance. “A lot of companies also are recognizing that older and younger workers balance one another’s skills. Older workers might have an invaluable knowledge of a manufacturing process, but young workers know the new technologies.”

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