Is Silicon Valley ageist? The young average age of its workers suggests so

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Quentin Hardy on the New York Times Bits column, reports that a survey of tech companies by Payscale, shows a very young median age compared with the overall US average age of 42.3 years. There’s a 16 year difference from the norm at some companies.

According to Hardy:

Just six of the 32 companies it looked at had a median age greater than 35 years old. Eight of the companies, the study said, had median employee age of 30 or younger. Women were generally less than 30% of the work force, and in fields like semiconductors, represented much less than that…

The company with the oldest workers on the PayScale list, Hewlett Packard, came in at 41 years.

The other five companies with older workers, in descending order of median age, were IBM. Global Services (38 years old), Oracle (38), Nokia (36), Dell (37) and Sony (36).

The seven companies with the youngest workers, ranked from youngest to highest in median age, were Epic Games (26); Facebook (28); Zynga (28); Google (29); and AOL, Blizzard Entertainment, InfoSys, and Monster.com (all 30). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only shoe stores and restaurants have workers with a median age less than 30.

Median age means that an equal number of workers are above and below the figure.

Surveys of the age of workers are simply that: age. They are not a measure of the abilities and skills of the workers. You’d need to map salaries and qualifications against any age survey to see what’s really going on inside these companies.

Older workers, especially in Silicon Valley, often feel that there is “ageism” in hiring practices. But it’s more likely part of an unstoppable trend that is purely focused on costs.

I would bet that these companies are skewing toward younger workers because they are simply less expensive. Do those younger workers know more? Are they more skillful? More productive? They are certainly cheaper and that means they are more productive as measured per salary dollar.

Today’s businesses, especially our high-tech firms, get a lot more done using far fewer skilled workers thanks to ever more sophisticated development systems and tools. Technology’s attack on work is accelerating.

- Take a look at collaborative technologies, these produce systems that cab scale the knowledge held by a few individuals across an entire organization.

- Artificial intelligence systems are really “artificial human” systems, they try to emulate specific work done by people who think, rather than assemble. AI systems are essentially “digital robots” as opposed to mechanical robots we know from factory floors.

The term “artificial intelligence” doesn’t elicit the same fear and attention as robots used in manufacturing, but both are the same: to do the work of humans at a far lower cost. This is what the fruits of our technology revolution have made possible, that fewer people are need to do the work. But the fruit is not being shared, we don’t all have an equal bite of the cherry

Unequal sharing in the fruits of technology

This is at the heart of the “middle class” decline. The benefits of our powerful, ever more productive technologies are not being shared equally by society. It’s not the inequality of money — that’s simply a proxy for the fact that there is an unequal distribution of the benefits from technology. Jobs aren’t coming back.

It’s not the business of companies to bring back jobs but to eliminate as many as they can from their own books because it is their single largest, variable cost of business.

New jobs will arise, but we don’t need everyone employed. What’s the point of our incredibly productive technologies, our manufacturing scale, etc, if they require more workers than less?

That’s not the way the world works.

Over the next ten years or so, we need to have a new language, a new culture, a new metric to GDP, to deal with a society in which for the vast majority of the population, their experience of life will be of a world without work. [I define "work" as an activity that earns a wage.]

A world without work is both scary and exciting. That feeling of excitement is exactly the same feeling as being scared – it’s all about the context. A future world without work offers the same choices.

I can envisage a future that’s incredibly scary: our culture of vilifying the unemployed and unskilled could be taken to brutal extremes. But I can also imagine a different context to the use of our technologies, a future that could be a golden age.

Forced march into the future…

We need to accept our fate: that we will soon face a world without work, maybe within a decade.

We need to start preparing for it now because the arrow of time is relentless, it marches us into the future whether we like it or not.

The legions of techno-optimists, with their techno-optimist books, magazine articles, speeches, are wasting their, and our time, they are distractions from what needs to be done. We need “techno-activists” far more than we need techno-optimists, and we need far more of them. Techno-optimism without activism is like making a birthday wish while blowing out candles: a lot of blowhard hot air. Action is needed to ensure we get the right future – a healthy and peaceful society — maybe even a flowering of humanity as we become freed from the shackles of labor.

Predicting the future of technology is easy — knowing how we will live in that future is hard.


This article by Tom Foremski originally appeared on Silicon Valley Watcher, a Burn Media publishing partner.

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