At 27, am I close to being washed up?
Considering that I’m not an NFL running back or an Olympic gymnast, it’s a pretty ridiculous question to ask. But in a tech world that skews extremely young, it’s hard not to wonder whether you’re going to wake up one day and find yourself on the wrong side of an invisible line.
That is, if you haven’t already. The most recent Payscale study found that the median age of employees at major Web 2.0 startups ranges from 28 to 31, and other smaller startups, like mine, skew even younger.
When Mark Zuckerberg declared in 2007 that “young people are just smarter,” he was just confessing to a bias many in the tech industry already held. Since then, that ageism has only seemed to worsen. The evidence isn’t hard to come by. It’s in the age discrimination lawsuits Google and Twitter have been dealt. It’s in the New York Times’s recent account of Amazon’s work culture, where middle-aged employees with families couldn’t survive without pulling 80-hour weeks. And chances are, it’s in the more subtle, under-the-radar cues your own organization drops, wittingly or otherwise.
The New Republic’s cover story last year on the brutal ageism in tech captured that mounting occupational anxiety, at one point describing how Silicon Valley workers flooded a cosmetic surgeon’s office in hopes of staving off any perception that they’re too old for the industry. If that detail wasn’t shocking enough, those workers were reportedly as young as 26.
It might seem strange–or even laughable–for tech employees in their 20s to worry about being too old, but the stress many feel is all too real, and so are the work cultures that are causing it.
While career paths in other industries embrace a slow and steady rise up the ranks, it’s hard for young tech workers to escape the pressure of a shorter runway.
When he graduated from college, Jay Acunzo, now 29, thought he’d be a sports journalist. But the publishing world was collapsing around him. Instead, he ended up as a digital media strategist at Google, which was hiring promising young graduates by the dozen–“mental athletes,” in Google speak.
“We were all very driven to run through walls and do whatever it took to . . . get the promotion, to get the new title,” Acunzo said when we spoke about his experience recently. “There was this real need to feel like you’d made it already by the age of 25, which is absurd, when you think about it, but that was definitely the feeling that we all had.”
Similarly, Whitney Hu, 24, quickly confronted this stress when she took a job working in marketing and content strategy for Pager, a health care startup, a year after graduating college. “The general manager for my startup was 28, and I kept giving myself a number,” she told me. “If I’m not as successful as he is by the time I’m 28, then I’m a failure.”
That pressure to succeed so rapidly isn’t easily dismissed as a silly, millennial-overachiever mind-set. It’s possible that notion has trickled down from the way venture capitalists fetishize young entrepreneurs–the Zuckerbergs, Spiegels, and Karps of startup lore. “The cutoff in investors’ heads is 32,” Y Combinator’s Paul Graham told the New York Times in 2013.
Though data on the impact that age plays in startup funding is very limited, the numbers that are available appear to bear this out. A 2010 study by CB Insights found that entrepreneurs under 35 got nearly twice as much funding as those over 45.
“I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg,” Graham added, half joking, in his interview with the Times. “There was a guy once who we funded who was terrible. I said: ‘How could he be bad? He looks like Zuckerberg!’”
Graham’s comment nevertheless makes a point. Startup heads see a real advantage in being perceived as young Zuckerbergs–stars-to-be with limitless potential. But going after that ideal can lead to feeling stuck before you’ve even really gotten started.
Grant Burgess was also hired right out of college by Google around the same time as Acunzo, working primarily on selling Google AdWords. He described an environment where the teams would be reshuffled and new roles would be assigned every six months or so, in order to give Google’s mental athletes a sense of progress and accomplishment.
“I would just kind of coast or float up to whatever role became available,” he said. “It was almost like they were creating these roles in order to promote.”
Eventually, he says he realized the promotions were mostly an illusion meant to satiate that pressure to “make it.”
“It was almost like a ceiling,” he said, “and in order to get out of that, you really had to either make a change within or outside of Google.”
Payscale publicly lists the average employee tenures at Fortune 500 companies, and Google (1.1 years) and Amazon (1.0 years) are in the bottom five, far below the overall average of 3.68 (as well as the national average of 4.6 years).
Burgess left Google without much of a plan, but that didn’t mean he had escaped the pressure to achieve something fast.
“When I was first leaving Google, [my dad] was like, ‘Well if you don’t get a job right away, you’re going to be behind these other people who are going to do that next [big] thing,’” he recalled. “Even if you do come back into that world, you’re going to be a couple years behind.”
For some, the solution is to ditch the tech startup world altogether. By the end of her first year at Pager, Hu realized that the anxiety of startup life wasn’t for her. When the opportunity came to take a marketing job for the Strand Bookstore, she made the switch. “I saw more opportunities to grow at a rate I think I felt more comfortable at,” she explained.
And instead of jumping back into the tech scene, Burgess went on a two-month road trip around the U.S. before booking a one-way ticket to New Zealand. Once he arrived, he bought a car and drove around the countryside, sleeping in a hammock most nights.
“I was definitely trying to find something,” he said. “I was trying to get a little bit more direction and learn how to live my life with more intention.”
Burgess’s time away from tech gave him a fresh perspective. Eventually, he ended up getting involved with a small New Zealand startup, first by doing part-time door-to-door sales, and later moving into a COO role. Now, back in the U.S. and working on his own startup, he thinks it’s silly how young people in the tech industry put such a strain on their own well-being.
“I see people in the rat race and feeling like you have to perform at an early age and move up to get an executive position, but there’s so much opportunity for anyone of any age to pursue their ideas,” he said. “I feel fortunate to have that personal growth and perspective to bank on.”
Acunzo left Google around the same time as Burgess, but has stayed in tech. After successful stints with Dailybreak Media and Hubspot, he’s now the VP of platform at seed-fund NextView Ventures, where he observes the tech industry from a 20,000-foot perspective.
“Do I think that there is some semblance of ageism in the industry? Yes, and I think that’s completely unfair to either end of the spectrum,” he said. “It should be about, What are you capable of, and what are you like as this person? Are you a good person as a worker? Are you a skilled person that will help our business?”
Ultimately, it falls on tech leadership to find ways to proactively address the age biases and related pressures in their own cultures. All other considerations aside, it makes for bad business. Even the most promising young talent can be cut off from reaching their true potential if they feel pressured to do just that before they hit 30.
“[Ageism] exists,” Acunzo adds. “I think it’s incredibly unfortunate. But the good investors and good startups will actively teach to avoid this.”
They should. We’ll know it’s working when the Botox clinic is empty.
Joe Lazauskas is the editor in chief of Contently, and a technology and marketing journalist. His work has appeared in Digiday, Mashable, and Forbes, and he is the former editor in chief of The Faster Times and The New York Egotist.