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Tech age discrimination, or something else? Reverse trends in the US and Japan

I have neglected to bring up Dave Winer’s January 30 post in which Winer, who is about the same age as I, discussed allegations of age discrimination at Google. Winer cited a New York Times artiicle that included the following:

Seth Williams, a director of staffing at Google, said his firm was looking for candidates who are “passionate” and “truly have a desire to change the world.”

After quoting similar statements from LinkedIn and Facebook, the article then states:

Some observers say much of this language is just code for age discrimination. They point to the case of Brian Reid, a 52-year-old manager who was fired by Google in 2004 — nine days before the company announced plans to go public — after his supervisors, including the company’s vice president for engineering operations, allegedly called him a poor “cultural fit,” an “old guy” and a “fuddy-duddy” with ideas “too old to matter.”

Winer notes that derogatory language is unacceptable in the workplace when speaking about race or gender, but that the language quoted above is completely acceptable.

But while age bias may be one of the EFFECTS of the practices of tech companies, I suspect that it’s not the underlying CAUSE. Something else is afoot.

I finally found the item that I referenced in the comments to Winer’s post. It’s something that was published a couple of weeks before Winer’s post. The item is entitled What It’s Really Like to Work at Google. Here are some relevant excerpts from the article:

There’s no doubt that working at Google comes with perks; not only does Google provide the traditional benefits like health insurance and extremely competitive pay, but Googlers are treated to free breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, free on-site massages, car detailing, on-site fitness centers, and even napping pods.

It’s almost as if you could live on campus and never leave.

Hold that thought.

Google features full showers and locker rooms, enabling Googlers to work as hard as they want, potentially for days at a time. A former contractor for Google noted that many of the engineers and sales teams “are always pushing themselves and each other. I saw a lot of really determined, competitive people there,” to the point that they would stay on campus for several days at a time.

Brilliantly, Google has designed all of its offices so its employees can stay at work overnight, without having to worry about a thing — such as their hunger, health, or hygiene.

Now at the time that I read the Winer post, I noted that the only people who could “live and breathe” Google were people without families. And since people who have families tend to be older than those without families, one can see the potential for age bias.

But if you look at the history of business, you’ll find that people who “lived and breathed” companies in the past weren’t necessarily young. Remember the salaryman?

When Akira got married, he recalls, he invited his bucho, or division chief, to the wedding, as all salarymen did. And during the reception the boss made a speech to the bride, as he always did. “Your new husband is a very good worker,” he began. “He is important to the company. So please understand that he may need to work many long hours.” All the guests nodded silently. “And when he is at home, please take care of him.”

Akira says that his bride—the marriage was largely arranged by their families—was not upset by the bucho’s remarks: her role of housewife was taken for granted. “But later she thought something must be wrong with the system,” he confides. Akira would return home in the small hours stumbling drunk; dutifully she would wait up, angered. The dinner is put away and the bath is cold, she might say. As he grew older, he no longer stayed out so late. But he did not share her reservations about his evening activities. “In Japan entertaining clients is a part of the job,” he explains.

A salaryman arrives in the office at 9am and ends his working day late, often around midnight. He does not dare leave the office before his supervisor—and managers stay late to show their loyalty. Is any work going on? Rarely. But long hours remain the norm.

In Japan, it’s the younger workers who have rebelled against the salaryman system.

Late-night carousing is becoming less common these days: younger colleagues treat the hours after work as their own, not the company’s. Nobu, an ambitious 31-year-old salaryman, is one such. He chose a job at an American company in part so that he could work reasonable hours. He didn’t count on having a manager of the old school, who kept the team in the office or in the bars. “My first year, I didn’t get more than three or four hours of sleep a day,” he says. Changing jobs was not an option. “I didn’t want to quit—because it was so tough,” he says. “Then I would have ‘lost’.” When he got a new manager, Nobu was able to relish his free time.

So in Japan, it’s the old people who give everything to the company, and the young ones who maintain a life of their own. In Silicon Valley, it’s the opposite – the older workers have tended to “get a life,” while the younger workers are more inclined to be the “salarypeople” for Google or LinkedIn or Facebook or whoever.

While the age discrimination that Winer rails against is probably real, it’s probably an accident of the times. If Google could get the fifty somethings to stay on campus all night, then perhaps it would be the college grads who would complain about an inability to get hired by Google, since Google hiring people would use code words such as “experienced” and “seasoned” to describe the people they want.

And who knows? Perhaps 10-20 years from now, when the current Google workforce starts having grandkids, those young people may be undesirable hires.

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2 thoughts on “Tech age discrimination, or something else? Reverse trends in the US and Japan

  1. Paul on said:

    Re: “While [age discrimination] is probably real, it’s probably an accident of the times” Probably the worst summation on this issue that I have ever read.

  2. What would your summation of the issue be?

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