Ageism in Tech

A VC friend of mine who isn’t known for candy coating things, told me once that his firm likes investing in startups with young, early-in-their-career employees because “One thing they always make more of is young, cheap people.” This same master of the universe also told me about delaying layoffs at one of his firm’s portfolio companies “until the holiday heroin wore off,” and was full of other carnivorous, bloodless sentiments like “The biggest job of a CEO is to make the next payroll.” So much bottom line tough talk but the fact is that older workers are more expensive, firing them before Christmas is shitty, and we’re all replaceable sooner or later.

From Eskimos shipping their elderly off on a cake of ice, to the grim truth that “nobody gets out of life alive,” there’s a certain awful naked lunch realization we all have to face that at some point the we’re going to get old, the wheels will fall off of the bus, and we’re all going to take the big dirt nap. My old writing teacher Gordon Lish once told another student in a seminar that 20-somethings should never write about sex because they hadn’t had enough of it yet, and no one under 30 really and truly accepts their own mortality.

I was recently asked whether I saw “ageism” in my company. At the doddering age of 58, with sore knees and weak eyes, I guess I should know. Sure, I’ve paid attention to the plight of older workers in the tech sector over the years, and know it must be especially grim for a coder or engineer the further they get away from their graduate studies. I saw the resistance of COBOL and FORTRAN programmers as mainframes were replaced by the PC revolution. I know a lot of talented programmers spent a lot of time off the clock learning the latest framework or language to stay fresh and au courant. Me? I’m a hack, a writer who was lucky enough to move on from journalism and go corporate while the getting was good back in the mid-1990s. Although I can take a little solace that the ability to write a good headline isn’t going away any day soon, I also get more than a little concerned by machine learning systems that can churn out a perfectly good quarterly corporate earnings story and do the work of some poor Bloomberg reporter in half the time. When a headhunter looks at my resume, they invariably say something like “colorful” or “very unique” but that’s code for saying I’ve switched careers a few times over the last three decades (more from boredom, a terrible attention span and curiosity than some master plan).

Why do I work?  Well, to keep the wolf from the door certainly. But that’s like saying I’m giving up French cooking for a diet of Soylent. Do I wake up at dark o’clock and spend two hours commuting to a downtown office in Boston because I want to wake up early and drive the same highway every morning listening to the NPR Spring beg-a-thon? Do I sit down at my desk out of a sense of obligation to ring the bell and punch the clock? Nah. I like being around my colleagues. I like the energy of a good problem. I like the dysfunction of a start up. But most of all I like being old and realizing as I tackle a problem that I’m drawing on three decades of experience and am able to retrieve from my years something approaching the “wisdom” ascribed to being an older worker; examples I’ve seen before that a colleague in their 20s probably hasn’t been exposed to yet. And I like working with young people and not in the Jane Goodale observing the social habits of chimps either. Sure, there’s a lot of challenges in managing people versus working on a story or project — journalists are terrible team members and pretty much solo practitioners — but it’s the chance to teach and guide that makes me gets up  in the morning and making the long trip to my desk.

Bill Ziff once told me in a profile I wrote about him for Forbes that taking over his father’s publishing company saved him “from a life of abstraction” in academia. My mentor at Forbes, Jim Michaels, worked deep in his 70s as the magazine’s editor, never seeming to lose his sharp mind nor his love for new technology and the impact it had on the business world and society at large.  At McKinsey, every new consultant plucked fresh from Wharton or the Harvard Business School hopes to survive long enough to be elected a Director, but the reality of the Firm’s “up or out” culture is the average consultant lasts little more than two years before being “graduated” (to coin Dan Lyon’s Orwellian term for what HubSpot calls firing people) to another gig. My generation — the Typewriter Generation — we grew up with grandparents who put in 40 years at the same behemoth and retired with a gold watch and a nice pension. I started my career thinking longevity in a job was a good thing, that churning from one job to the next was a negative besmirch on the CV. After 13 years at Forbes, I started to wonder if I was in it for 20 more like Michaels or some of the other senior editors. Eventually, after deciding it was time to leave Forbes — not because I saw some bad times ahead — I started to bounce around. McKinsey for a couple years. Lichtenstein with 21inet for a couple, eight months at IDG, five at Lenovo — moving from reporter to editor to publisher to consultant to managing director, VP — changing my specialties from writing and editing to everything from web analytics and digital marketing to public relations, even engineering, Olympic sponsorships and crisis communications. It’s been fun, but definitely nerve-wracking.

I could get off my ass and research what the HR “thought leaders” say today’s Millenials can expect n terms of the number of jobs they’ll hold over the course of their career. It’s a lot. I feel bad for anyone fresh out of college trying to land a substantial job with benefits. The gig economy. The unpaid internship. The hustle with all that pent up education and vitality and ambition only to be thwarted by a sclerotic economy and a workforce constipated with old Baby Boomers like me — I’d be pissed too. I was pissed. I graduated from an Ivy League college into the “Carter Recession” and was washing dishes, tending bar and selling my precious bodily fluids to science to keep myself in weed and beer. The worst decade of my life has been my 20s — but once I settled down, got hired at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune and told to cover the selectmen in the town of Salem, NH, I started to find my purpose.

I haven’t read Disrupted yet. The reviews say it has a theme of “ageism” but I think not so much. Dan and I have worked at the same places and had the same career trajectory more or less and we’re good friends and we share war stories. I don’t think his book about his 18 months at Hubspot is so much about being an old guy in a company run by the young and naive as it is sheer glee at the banality of startup culture and offices run on a bread-and-circus mentality with the decor — as he puts it — of a day care center. My other good writer friend, Charles Dubow said to me once about working at a digital publication post-Forbes, “It was definitely a case of children-running-with-scissors and it made me realize the scariest episode of Star Trek was when Kirk and Spock were stranded on that planet run by children.” Reporters are professional cynics, trained to poke at dissembling bullshit — Forbes reporters under Jim Michaels were especially coached not to buy into some company’s bullshit about “corporate culture” and we are conditioned to roll our eyes over the sheer silliness of casual Fridays, “team building exercises,” and Orwellian abuses of the language into meaningless cliches signifying nothing.  Watching a younger colleague discover some ageless truth and decide to rename it — e.g. calling “advertorial” something like “content marketing” or “native advertising” — well, calling them on it is just going to piss them off, so it’s our job as the old, infirm, wise and treacherous to smile, and know inside that their time is going to come and everything old is new again.

We’re all full of shit, and spout delusional cliches at some point or another. It’s predictable for one generation to write off the one ahead of them as being out-of-touch,senile Matlock-watching fuddy-duddies or the one behind them as brash, clueless upstarts with their new-fangled toys and execrable music. I’m not looking for some special treatment or veneration just because I have a lot of numbers on my odometer, but I also know this has all happened before and is going to happen again. It’s on me to stay relevant, and send the elevator back down at some point.  Should I be looking over my shoulder? Hell yes I should, as the late Andy Grove entitled one of his books, only the paranoid survive. I’ve got a lot of peers who didn’t get out of daily newpapers in time; who hung around newsrooms for too long; who didn’t see the sucker punch of digital coming to mess up their Typewriter-defined careers.  A lot of us adapted. Some went freelance and are writing great books and others have hit hard times, done in by bad health or too much trust that the good times would last forever.  I don’t want to be a skydiving grandpa, and god knows I don’t want to be like a former boss who suddenly hit the Grecian formula and started going around with an untucked shirt and designer jeans like some corporate version of Whatever Became of Baby Jane.

Best I can hope for is to pass along some hard-earned life lesson, like “Never turn down an offered Tic Tac. You might need it and resist the temptation to write rambling geezer screeds.




Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

3 thoughts on “Ageism in Tech”

  1. I’ll be damne, Churb. You once told Frank Abagnale to write a book. It is about time you take your own advice and write (another) one. Just NOT about rowing.

    I concur with Jim. Glad you’re back.

    PS: Your blog’s feed has been spamming links from delicious. You might want to kill that connector.

    PPS: Yes. Some us us still use RSS.

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