After Andrea Rodriguez lost her job last fall, she put away her suits. Not because she didn’t plan to keep working—she just had to seem younger. She’d been a successful sales trainer at SugarCRM, a Cupertino, Calif., company that pitches marketing and customer service software to businesses. Suddenly she was looking for a job in Silicon Valley, and she was over 50. Early in her search, she recalls, one hiring manager told her, “We have a very diverse age group—some people are right out of college, and one older group is as old as 48.” Gulp.
So as Rodriguez chased more interviews, dresses with brightly colored sweaters or jackets over skirts replaced her five suits. She started regularly scanning Reddit, Yelp, IMDb, and MSNBC, checking words she didn’t know on Urban Dictionary, so she could talk about superhero movies, the Golden State Warriors, and the Kardashians. She collected 500 connections on LinkedIn, got herself on Twitter, Pinterest, and Snapchat, and started a blog. A hiring manager at Aruba, a wireless equipment maker owned by Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, read the blog, and after five months without a paycheck, Rodriguez got another sales training job.
In an effort to keep her twenty- and thirty-something colleagues thinking of her as an older sister rather than a mom, she goes out of her way to socialize in the break room or at company events. That’s where Reddit and IMDb come in handy. “If you bring up Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, all conversation will stop,” she says. “You’ll be viewed as an outsider.”
The median U.S. worker is 42, which makes sense given the boundaries of typical working age. At Silicon Valley companies, the median employee is more likely to be 31 (Apple), 30 (Google, Tesla), 29 (Facebook, LinkedIn), or younger, according to researcher PayScale. Plenty of other industries try to phase out older workers for younger, cheaper ones, but the Bay Area’s tech companies are singularly uninterested in and even distrustful of long résumés, says Michael Welch, a San Francisco employment lawyer. Mark Zuckerberg famously summed up the Valley ethos at age 22, when he told a Stanford audience, “Younger people are just smarter.”
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Not all the older workers are going quietly. From 2008 through last year, the Valley’s 150 biggest tech companies faced 226 complaints of age discrimination filed with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, 28 percent more than complaints of racial bias and 9 percent more than those of gender bias. Last month, former employees of the old, combined Hewlett-Packard sued spinoffs HP Enterprise and HP, alleging they were targeted in a large wave of layoffs because of their age. (One of the plaintiffs, an efficiency expert, had just earned HP’s highest performance rating; only 250 of its 50,000 employees get that.) The plaintiffs are seeking class-action status on behalf of workers 40 and older who were laid off and replaced by younger employees. Next year, Google is scheduled to face a trial in a suit alleging age bias in hiring. The plaintiffs declined to comment. HP and Google deny the plaintiffs’ claims and say they’ll defend against them.