The students of Timothy Draper’s University of Heroes shuffle into a conference room, khaki shorts swishing against their knees, flip-flops clacking against the carpeted floor. One by one they take their seats and crack open their laptops, training their eyes on Facebook home pages or psychedelic screen savers. An air conditioner whirs somewhere in the rafters. A man in chinos stands before them.
The man is Steve Westly, former state controller, prominent venture capitalist, 57-year-old baron of Silicon Valley. He smiles at the group with all the sheepishness of a student preparing for show-and-tell. He promises to be brief.
“People your age are changing the world,” Westly tells the students, providing his own list of great historical innovators: Napoleon, Jesus, Zuckerberg, Larry, Sergey. “It’s almost never people my age,” he adds.
Students at Draper University — a private, residential tech boot camp launched by venture capitalist Timothy Draper, in what was formerly San Mateo’s Benjamin Franklin Hotel — have already embraced Westly’s words as a credo. They inhabit a world where success and greatness seem to hover within arm’s reach. A small handful of those who complete the six-week, $9,500 residential program might get a chance to join Draper’s business incubator; an even smaller handful might eventually get desks at an accelerator run by Draper’s son, Adam. It’s a different kind of meritocracy than Westly braved, pursuing an MBA at Stanford in the early ’80s. At Draper University, heroism is merchandised, rather than earned. A 20-year-old with bright eyes and deep pockets (or a parent who can front the tuition) has no reason to think he won’t be the next big thing.
This is the dogma that glues Silicon Valley together. Young employees are plucked out of high school, college-aged interns trade their frat houses and dorm rooms for luxurious corporate housing. Twenty-seven-year-old CEOs inspire their workers with snappy jingles about moving fast and breaking things. Entrepreneurs pitch their business plans in slangy, tech-oriented patois.
Gone are the days of the “company man” who spends 30 years ascending the ranks in a single corporation. Having an Ivy League pedigree and a Brooks Brothers suit is no longer as important.
“Let’s face it: The days of the ‘gold watch’ are over,” 25-year-old writer David Burstein says. “The average millennial is expected to have several jobs by the time he turns 38.”
Yet if constant change is the new normal, then older workers have a much harder time keeping up. The Steve Westlys of the world are fading into management positions. Older engineers are staying on the back-end, working on system administration or architecture, rather than serving as the driving force of a company.
“If you lost your job, it might be hard to find something similar,” a former Google contractor says, noting that an older engineer might have to settle for something with a lower salary, or even switch fields. The contractor says he knows a man who graduated from Western New England University in the 1970s with a degree in the somewhat archaic field of time-motion engineering. That engineer wound up working at Walmart.
Those who do worm their way into the Valley workforce often have a rough adjustment. The former contractor, who is in his 40s, says he was often the oldest person commuting from San Francisco to Mountain View on a Google bus. And he adhered to a different schedule: Wake up at 4:50 a.m., get out the door by 6:20, catch the first coach home at 4:30 p.m. to be home for a family supper. He was one of the few people who didn’t take advantage of the free campus gyms or gourmet cafeteria dinners or on-site showers. He couldn’t hew to a live-at-work lifestyle.
And compared to other middle-aged workers, he had it easy.
In a lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court in July, former Twitter employee Peter H. Taylor claims he was canned because of his age, despite performing his duties in “an exemplary manner.” Taylor, who was 57 at the time of his termination in September of last year, says his supervisor made at least one derogatory remark about his age, and that the company refused to accommodate his disabilities following a bout with kidney stones. He says he was ultimately replaced by several employees in their 20s and 30s. A Twitter spokesman says the lawsuit is without merit and that the company will “vigorously” defend itself.
The case is not without precedent. Computer scientist Brian Reid lobbed a similar complaint against Google in 2004, claiming co-workers called him an “old man” and an “old fuddy-duddy,” and routinely told him he was not a “cultural fit” for the company. Reid was 54 at the time he filed the complaint; he settled for an undisclosed amount of money.
What is surprising, perhaps, is that a 57-year-old man was employed at Twitter at all. “Look, Twitter has no 50-year-old employees,” the former Google contractor says, smirking. “By the time these [Silicon Valley] engineers are in their 40s, they’re old — they have houses, boats, stock options, mistresses. They drive to work in Chevy Volts.”
There’s definitely a swath of Valley nouveau riche who reap millions in their 20s and 30s, and who are able to cash out and retire by age 40. But that’s a minority of the population. The reality, for most people, is that most startups fail, most corporations downsize, and most workforces churn. Switching jobs every two or three years might be the norm, but it’s a lot easier to do when you’re 25 than when you’re 39. At that point, you’re essentially a senior citizen, San Francisco botox surgeon Seth Matarasso says.
“I have a friend who lived in Chicago and came back to Silicon Valley at age 38,” Matarasso recalls. “And he said, ‘I feel like a grandfather — in Chicago I just feel my age.”
Retirement isn’t an option for the average middle-aged worker, and even the elites — people like Westly, who were once themselves wunderkinds — find themselves in an awkward position when they hit their 50s, pandering to audiences that may have no sense of what came before. The diehards still work well past their Valley expiration date, but then survival becomes a job unto itself. Sometimes it means taking lower-pay contract work, or answering to a much younger supervisor, or seeking workplace protection in court.