What About Ageism Against the Young and Talented?

by Reihan Salam

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Noam Scheiber ever since 2001, when he was a junior editor at The New Republic. In the years since, he has had a distinguished career as a journalist and author, having written, among other things, one of the most insightful books on President Obama’s early efforts to combat the post-crisis economic downturn, The Escape Artists — a book that, to Scheiber’s chagrin, was often cited by conservatives for (implicitly) suggesting that the Obama administration devoted attention to its landmark health legislation that it might have otherwise focused on the levered-losses problem weighing down the economy. And now, as The New Republic cultivates a new identity as a home for high-quality, long-form reportage, Scheiber has developed a new niche as chronicler of the anxieties facing credentialed upper-middle-income professionals as new business models disrupt their way of life. For example, he has written sympathetically about the challenges facing corporate law firms and those who work for them, many of whom turned to these institutions in the hope that making enormous upfront human capital investments would pay off in the form of stable, remunerative work. Scheiber is just a few years older than I am, and we’re both right at that point where some of our peers are staring down the real possibility of economic obsolescence, or rather they (or should I say “we”) are in the position of having to start from scratch: to learn new skills, to adapt to new circumstances, to revise lofty expectations. This is particularly difficult for those who have taken on family obligations, which can be enormously fulfilling, yet which necessarily reduce one’s room for maneuver in a changing economic environment.

So I can’t say I was surprised to read Scheiber’s latest article on “The Brutal Ageism of Tech,” a vivid, lively account of the (supposed) challenges facing older, i.e., mid-thirties or older, software developers and entrepreneurs working in the world of technology. Scheiber’s basic argument is that the culture of Silicon Valley is dangerously youth-obsessed, and it leads investors to discount the value of experience. Start-ups led by young founders get frothy valuations while start-ups led by older founders with superior technology and superior business models get overlooked, or at the very least undervalued. Megan McArdle offers her thoughts on Scheiber’s thesis, which I recommend.

My impression is that Scheiber’s thesis is incorrect. Though I certainly haven’t done the in-depth reporting that Scheiber has done, which gives you good reason to take his word over mine, I have a number of friends who are entrepreneurs or aspiring entrepreneurs who are steeped in this world, and who’ve informed my perspective. In 2012, the Kauffman Institute found that of 5,000 start-ups launched since 2004, 48 percent were founded by people over the age of 45. Yet 64 percent of the start-ups that had survived this tumultuous period were led by over-45 founders. This has no bearing on Scheiber’s thesis. Indeed, it could reinforce his point that venture capitalists ought to if anything have a bias towards older founders over younger founders. And of course these start-ups weren’t all in technology. But it strikes me as implausible that VCs would ignore such findings outright. It is true that a number of prominent seed investors emphasize the importance of youth. It is not clear that these investors are representative. Much depends on the expectations of the entrepreneur in question. The central figure in Scheiber’s story, Nick Stamos, believes that his start-up ought to have been met with more enthusiasm. He is disappointed that only about a fifth of his VC meetings led to viable leads, and that he had been treated shabbily. Does he believe that it is common to do much better than that, or that VCs are as a general rule thoughtful, polite people who treat everyone who comes to them for money with great deference and respect?

Scheiber does try to draw on more systematic research, as he recognizes the limits of relying on anecdotal evidence:

In 1999, a consultant named Freada Klein began a five-year “quality of work” study of 22 start-ups, whose employees she anonymously surveyed on a regular basis. Though Klein found that few of the companies copped to overt discrimination, many confessed to having elaborate points-based systems for evaluating job candidates, in which they deducted points for being married, having kids, and living in the suburbs. The older candidates were quite literally being held to a higher standard.

In other instances, middle-aged people had to show they weren’t schoolmarm-ish authority figures out to stifle fun and creativity—parents, in other words. “A number of times, people said or wrote in survey comments something like, ‘We don’t want anybody’s parents in here,’ ” says Klein. “ ‘It’s too weird to have someone as old as my parents reporting to me.’ ” Many were referring to candidates in their forties.

It is worth noting, however, that Klein is a diversity consultant, and as such, it is not unreasonable to suggest that she might be inclined to see diversity problems that diversity consultants are unusually well-placed to solve. Then, of course, there is the fact that her work dates from 1999-2005, an era in which Silicon Valley was recovering from the frothy valuations of the boom. Now, in contrast, there is a scramble for technical talent, which you’d think would tend to mitigate discriminatory tendencies. Growing businesses don’t have the luxury of discriminating against capable people, regardless of their age. Indeed, this scramble for technical talent is such that at least some young aspiring entrepreneurs are choosing to find partners who can help them pursue their business models, as the prospect of identifying and hiring software developers is so daunting, and so expensive. Though I can’t say for sure, I wouldn’t be surprised if Melissa Bell, Ezra Klein, and Matt Yglesias chose to join Vox Media over creating their own venture-backed start-up because they appreciated how hard and how expensive it would be to find high-quality engineers, to name a close-to-home example.

As Scheiber’s contemporary, I appreciate the power of his narrative: these seasoned thirty- and forty-somethings are getting discriminated against! But I’d like to offer another possibility: it could be that Silicon Valley is one domain in which young people aren’t being actively discriminated against, and so we see a decent number of young people getting a chance to prove themselves. Put it this way: Sofia Coppola is a brilliant filmmaker, and she almost certainly benefited from the opportunities afforded the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola. Sofia Coppola was given at-bats that other people would kill to get. Who doubts that there are young people in other institutions — non-tech firms, for example — who wouldn’t knock it out of the park if given a chance? But they’re not. And if you don’t get at-bats, it’s really hard to get better. The tech sector is unique because of the Cambrian explosion of tech entrepreneurship: a proliferation of enabling technologies (Amazon’s cloud computing to build a backbone, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android marketplaces to facilitate distribution, oDesk to find talent, GitHub to share code, etc.) have lowered barriers to entry, lowering the cost of entrepreneurial at-bats. So we see more young people in leadership roles, and also more people with heavy accents, autism spectrum disorders, and other qualities that might make it hard to climb a corporate ladder. This isn’t to suggest that Silicon Valley is a pure meritocracy. I’m sure Silicon Valley falls short in all kinds of important ways, and that venture capitalists like Dan Scheinman, the hero of Scheiber’s story, will profit from the shortsightedness of their competitors. Rather, I am suggesting that we think more about the way that firms in oligopolistic or heavily-regulated sectors might stifle innovation by rewarding entrenched insiders and limiting opportunities for newcomers to make a mark.

(The photo is of Aaron Levie, the notably young founder of the enterprise cloud company Box.)