By Bob Crum
Over the past 40 years, the contract between a technology company and its workers has changed dramatically, with ageism a clear consequence.
When I started working in the 1970s, tech companies typically viewed employees as valuable assets. They asked for, and received, loyalty from employees and provided a degree of loyalty in return.
At Hewlett-Packard, where I worked, if the company needed to shut down a product line or other function, it typically offered the affected employees a 60- to 90-day window to find another job inside the company. HP understood the significant investment already made in its employees and their intrinsic value to the company.
By the 2010s, that philosophy had changed dramatically. Employers began treating employees as expendable assets.
And older workers were often the most expendable.
Ageism is so prevalent in Silicon Valley today that companies don’t even try to hide it. These “modern” companies might decide to shed 6,500 workers and simply show them the door, with no real chance to find positions elsewhere within the firm.
Ironically, it seems that employers still expect a certain amount of loyalty from their employees, but they have all but abandoned extending loyalty in return.
My own career is a blueprint for this dramatic shift.
I started at HP in 1976 as a college grad with a computer engineering degree from the University of Michigan.
Though I first interviewed for an engineering position, my schedule was changed for the afternoon, and I was told I’d be talking to the marketing department instead. At the end of the day, the marketing manager told me I’d be offered a position in technical support.
HP was more interested in finding good people – and putting them in the right job – than it was in finding people with targeted backgrounds that filled specific positions, and passing on anyone that wasn’t the “perfect” fit, which is today’s norm.
But HP’s hiring culture changed in 1999, the year Carly Fiorina became CEO. Fiorina, who was brought in as a “change agent” for the technology icon, blew up long-standing traditions.
Fiorina oversaw 30,000 job cuts from 1999 to 2005, something never seen previously at HP. In fact, a 2011 study done by UC Davis concluded that HP’s fall from grace as one of Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” to an also-ran was because of new values. “These values were organizational disrespect for employees, dissatisfaction with employees, and unfairness in employee treatment,” the study reads.
I left HP in 2005, sad to leave a company that had been great to me, yet fed up with what it had become. A stint at Sun Microsystems lasted for over 2 years until 2008, when Sun sustained about 9,500 layoffs, including me at age 54.
I became an independent contractor and worked for a startup and two other tech companies until early 2016, when my contract wasn’t renewed.
At 62, I had probably lasted 15 years longer in the tech industry than I should have.
I continued to seek work in the tech sector, and while I tried to hide my age as best I could, the depth and breadth of my experience was a dead giveaway.
In fact, I was hit between the eyes with age-related bias on two separate occasions.
After interviewing for a position that I was extremely well qualified for, I had coffee with the hiring manager, who I’d known for some time. After a few pleasantries, she told me that I wasn’t going to get the job. Though disappointed, I did what I’ve always been coached to do. I asked why.
“We decided to give the position to someone earlier in their career,” she said.
After a similar interview, this time I received a simple email rejection. When I asked why, a return email informed me: “Although your experience for this job is great, that experience was a long time ago.”
Silicon Valley companies seem to think that youth equates with “smarts.” And they no longer even try to hide their age bias.
Speaking at Stanford’s Y Combinator Startup School a decade ago, a then 22-year-old Mark Zuckerberg told a rapt audience, “Young people are just smarter.”
But there are many different kinds of smarts.
Older workers bring an institutional memory stretching back decades that can help companies navigate challenging times. They bring a level of maturity and judgment to decision-making that is based on dealing with crises, difficulties and even opportunities during their career. Perhaps most important, older workers can act as mentors to younger employees, helping build their company, industry and job function knowledge in a multi-generational workplace.
This bias exists in Silicon Valley largely because of its “youth-obsessed” culture, which seems unlike any other in the United States.
I often wonder if there are places in the country that value the experience of older people — and I hope they exist.
Thankfully, I’ve embraced being ejected from the tech industry. Too young and energetic to retire, I’m now working as an Encore.org Fellow at FIRST 5 of Santa Clara County, which is dedicated to improving early childhood development.
I’m also in the planning stages for my own decidedly non-tech business: a craft brewery and taproom.
I still have a lot of good years left in me.
Bob Crum is a survivor of the Silicon Valley hi-tech industry who is an Encore.org intergenerational fellow. He plans to open a craft brewery and taproom in the Silicon Valley, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.