Companies across the world are striving to be diverse and inclusive. The idea is to attract, retain and ensure diversity in all forms inside the meeting room. Not only does this bring a lot of experience and value to a company, but it also reflects an open, forward-thinking culture. Diversification in terms of gender, caste, region, and more are being addressed on a daily basis. (Also read: Diversity and Inclusion: The ridiculousness of making a “business case”)
Though most of the discussions about discrimination have focused on gender and race, what we have forgotten in the ‘hip’ culture of startups is that we need to address age discrimination, or ageism, as well. (Also read: Types of bias and how to avoid them in the recruitment process)
Life might begin somewhere in the 50s but it ends by mid-30s if you are trying hard to be part of the “startup culture.” Read this (read funny) question on Quora: “Could an otherwise successful person in his/her early 40s launch a startup? How can this person attract funding?”
You enter any budding company in Silicon Valley, London, Singapore, or Bengaluru, and you are likely to see people in their mid-20s. If by chance, you find a late-30s guy trying to fit in, congratulations! You just spotted a unicorn helping “the young people do it.”
In 2007, When Mark Zuckerberg, at Stanford, mentioned “Young people are smarter,” he said it quite clearly that to be successful, companies need to hire young people. And ignoring the likes of Warren Buffet and Steve Jobs, the Silicon Valley embraced the culture of “Be Young.”
In September 2013, when the BuzzFeed article titled “ What It’s Like Being The Oldest BuzzFeed Employee” talked about a 53-year-old editor with content that had lines such as “I am old enough to be the father of nearly every other editorial employee,” it was just another case in one of the high-rises of New York. The irony was 15 days from writing the article, Mark “Copyranter” Duffy was fired by his boss, who was 15 years younger, citing “creative differences.”
According to The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, it’s illegal under the Federal Law to pass up a potential employee for hire or to fail to promote or to fire a worker for being too old. However, that practice was long forgotten even before Steve Jobs revolutionized the music industry with his iPods.
But age discrimination is real and is quite rampant across the valley under the noses of proactive media and social media activists.
Who is to be blamed for this?
The two big successes (Facebook and Google) have both been founded by people when they were, certainly by the standards of those days, ridiculously young. The media intentionally or unintentionally had been nurturing, by repetitive publishing, the popular myth that “only young innovate” and reinventing it for a new era.
There’s no doubt that in pursuing the great American dream of innovating, young CEOs and angel investors have done their bit to contribute to this discrimination by mostly hiring young candidates and not picking ones with great experience simply because they did not fit in the ‘company’s culture.’ Check out this list shared by HBR on the average age of an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley.
Unintentional perhaps, but all too real…
What can we do about age discrimination in silicon valley?
Here is a motivating story of Ashok Soota, the founder of Happiest Minds, a startup based out of India’s own Silicon Valley, Bengaluru. He is 74.
It is essential to understand that with a large number of candles on your cake come bigger responsibilities that often thwart the never-ending process of learning. Everyone is going to grow older and take on more responsibilities. Even Zuckerberg! These numbers may or may not affect your performance. But in the end, if a person who is aging well and is competent, what’s the harm in recruiting him or her?
To begin with, software companies want competent engineers. And, it’s just not in their best interests to filter out potential candidates on anything other than merit, which can only be defined by assessing their skills on the right software. The right software gives not only accurate results but also candidates the freedom to use various programming skills to solve a particular problem. (Also read: What is blind hiring and how effective is it?)
Companies need to focus on the problem of ageism and identify potential problems attached to it. They need to conduct proper training sessions and implement effective strategies and policies. This requires a well-thought-out plan and commitment from management. Pair up older and younger people for projects so that they can learn from each other. Focus on skills and competencies of candidates and not their age.
Value performance over experience in the company and encourage them by giving fair appraisals. Encourage reluctant developers to better themselves via training and hackathons. Avoid setting age limits for promotion or performance evaluation.
Visit the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website, which includes helpful information to help you avoid discrimination of any kind.
When the so many are going with the 50s being the new 30, why shouldn’t startups?
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