Crabby Old Lady has run across a nasty bit of ageism debate that has erupted in the higher echelon of the tech blogosphere about whether youth or age is better capable of furthering the development of the web. It appears to have started with New York City venture capitalist Fred Wilson who wrote:
“It is incredibly hard to think of new paradigms when you've grown up reading the newspaper every morning. When you turn to TV for your entertainment. When you read magazines on the train home from work.
“But we have a generation coming of age right now that has never relied on newspapers, TV, and magazines for their information and entertainment. They are the net natives. They grew up in AOL chatrooms, IMing with their friends for hours after dinner, and went to school with a Facebook login.
“The Internet is their medium and they are showing us how it needs to be used.”
This is nothing more than the hoary false stereotype that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks dressed up in internet lingo. It was disproved so long ago that Crabby wonders if Mr. Wilson has just awakened from a Rip Van Winkle sleep.
Who does he think invented the web? And has he forgotten that it is the “kids” with no business experience to whom venture capitalists like him gave millions of dollars that helped bring about the dotcom bust?
Dave Winer, a man Crabby believes to be in his 50s and who, due to an unpleasant encounter some years ago she’d rather ignore, responded in a manner to which Crabby can only say, “right on, Dave” – if that phrase doesn’t date her too much from being allowed to have an opinion in this debate:
“At this point in my career I’m ready to do the really big ideas,” writes Mr. Winer, “and it sucks that attitudes like the one exemplified by Wilson are in my way. Stop thinking about who can’t do what, and start paying attention to who actually does it.
“I listened to an interview on public radio with one of the founders of YouTube, a young guy. The things he says were new 20 years ago. He’s a good marketer, and no doubt has attracted the people he needs to build a wonderful system. But he doesn’t have all the answers. Sometimes a bit of experience can help, not hinder, progress.
“In every other creative field people are active into their sixties, seventies or eighties. For some reason in tech we assume people are washed up at 30?”
Following on from Dave Winer, Steve Hodson, a man after Crabby’s own heart, minced no words in letting Mr. Wilson know where he stands:
“To Fred - kiss my ass. Just because I have gray hair, fathered a couple of kids, been divorced more than once - you know - that thing call Real Life - doesn’t make me or any of my generation any less of a potential to shift more than an occasional paradigm.
"Your assumption that anyone over the age of 30 isn’t a net native is arrogant at best. Who the hell do you think invented the net you duffus - it was us gray haired old farts when you were probably still in pampers.”
Clay Shirky then chimed in, in support of Mr. Wilson:
“I think the real issue, of which age is a predictor, is this: the future belongs to those who take the present for granted...
“...one easy way to fail is to assume that the past is more solid than it is, and the present more contingent. And the people least likely to make this mistake — the people best able to take the present for granted — are young people, for whom knowing what the world is really like is as easy as waking up in the morning, since this is the only world they’ve ever known.”
What a bunch of hooey. George Santayana comes to Crabby’s mind, a thinker whom Mr. Shirky might want to bone up on a little.
There are many more arguments pro and con in the comments sections the above links. The bottom line, however, is this: the ageism expressed by Mr. Wilson and Mr. Shirky is no less prejudice against old people than some others practice against people of color and women. (And come to think of it, there is a remarkable dearth of women engaged in this online argument.)
It is the kind of ageist thinking expressed by Mr. Wilson and Mr. Shirky that forced Crabby Old Lady into early retirement after a year of fruitless job interviews with condescending 20- and 30-somethings led to selling her home of 25 years and leaving New York City.
Crabby Old Lady is not alone. Even a cursory glance at chat rooms and forums on employment websites over several years turn up thousands of technology professionals in their 40s and 50s who cannot find work. It is age discrimination pure and simple and in case Mr. Wilson and Mr. Shirky don’t know it, it is illegal.
If that gives no one pause, the human cost of age discrimination in the workplace is profound - in mortgage foreclosures, college funds for children depleted, loss of livelihoods and of dignity. And in the bigger picture, taxes lost to the community, unrealized profits to business and innovation that will never happen in numbers so high over time that they cannot be calculated.
Ageism is not taken as seriously in the United States as racism and sexism, but it is no less destructive to the commonweal and the continued debasement of older workers is repugnant and contemptible.
It is long past time for the Fred Wilsons and Clay Sharkys of the world to realize this. If they and others like them do not, Crabby Old Lady is sorry she won’t live long enough to gleefully watch when they are shoved off their youthful perches perhaps, as with many elders now, they the best they have ever been.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Leah Aronoff tells us about her special relationship with New York City's little lighthouse in The Times and Me.]