Meeting Thoroughly Modern Millie
Older Women on Television

Ageism is Alive and Well - Notoriously So in the Tech World

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...

“ 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.]


The individuals behind paradigm shifts aren't defined by their age, race, or gender, but by their willingness to stay off of perches, out of homes of 25 years, and away from fruitless job interviews.

It is impossible to imagine that someone capable of shifting paradigms is sitting around right now worrying about any of the issues being discussed above.

Not retaining older workers is a terrible idea. Older workers have the knowledge (technical; institutional, etc.) that's necessary to running an organization. Employers will find out too late.

Amen! Amen! I understand this all too well!

My ex-husband was a tech support person for a major corporation here who could literally get their network up & running in his sleep! I know because I'm the one who woke him (I thought) in the middle of the night and listened while he explained what the caller needed to do (and promptly went back to sleep!) The next morning I told him how impressed I was tht he got things working and he asked, "The office called?" and we had a good laugh.

A year or so later he was "down-sized" at 47 (after 22 years with them and working with everything from big IBMs to little PCs) and hasn't worked in the tech field since. That act by his company put the final nails on a marriage that was shaky at best and ruined us financially. Neither of us has ever recovered. And we weren't alone. He still works on friends PCs and I don't trust anyone else when there's a problem with mine. He's forgotten more about computers than these kids know.

Then again, I remember a certain segment of our generation back in the Sixties shouting, "Don't trust anyone over thirty!" Looks like someone took it to heart and it's biting us in the backside. Sigh.

I'm glad you're getting this off your chest. I was also reading those entries you feature today and had to pull on my "zen shorts" to get out of the funk they were putting me in. Like you I'm sorry I won’t live long enough to "gleefully watch when they are shoved off their youthful perches." Meanwhile I revel in reminding myself that what goes around comes around if you'll pardon my cliche.

My my, what a fiery topic! Talk about stepping on people's toes...

Oh, dear, I will bet these guys are probably equally biased in other areas as well. What's the elder equivalent of "barefoot and pregnant?" LOL! Haven't they heard that the boomer population is literally exploding onto the Internet,and that we will comprise half the population of the US in 5-10 years?

Theirs is also a distinctly U.S.-centric way of thinking. Europe has an increasingly older population that is doing just fine in the field of creative computer development and use.

I would suggest these two youngsters attend the annual South by Southwest Interactive event in Austin, Texas, to get a more truthful picture of paradigm change.

And I will guarantee that any "elder" who has experienced ageism, whether they are still growing or not, is involved in a de facto paradigm shift.

As a matter of fact, it's the sheer number of all those "getting up every mornings" that have challenged my personal beliefs and values and led to even more effective paradigm changes. It's like that fateful moment when wine is aged just the right amount to attain "fineness."

Their tactics resemble the current narrow-minded administration's: the American public is too stupid (read: old) to know when we're pulling a scam...come on, it just isn't that hard to learn technology, and elders are making breakthrough discoveries left and right in many fields. These two gentlemen are creating their own downfall.

Good on ya, Ronni, for opening up these discussions. I'm researching human factors, with a focus on elders, and WE are the wave of the future! Power to the Boomers!

At 43, my husband is considered the grandfather of his tech group. I'm thankful he's still working and I worry how long it can last.

I lost my job in the dot-com crash. I worked at a start-up...but not a very stereotypical one. It was started by a woman and had women in all its key positions and lots of women developers. One of its groups also had a lot of people who had been programming since their NASA days in the 1960s. Man, they knew their stuff.

To my knowledge, not one of the women I worked with in the 1990s is still working in tech. In fact, at my husband's company not a single woman works in development. I asked one of his young coworkers where the women programmers were and he replied, "I don't know any women programmers."

Strange how life in the 21st century looks a lot like life in the 1950s.

Ha, my young students who allegedly know how to use the Internet use it for the dumbing down of language and an insular lack of awareness about anything beyong Britney Spears' latest pecadillo. They don't know what that last work means, of course.

Thanks for picking this up. I have just returned to school at age 48 to study computer electronics engineering. I have only been using a computer for about three years and absolutely love the technology and all that goes with it. Having grown up reading and using encyclopedias, I took straight to the computer as a research tool. It also serves as a media device today.
The surprising thing about the young people at school is their total lack of language skills. They also do not know how to research the topics given to them by teachers. The computer is just a means to communicate quickly with each other and play games. They look for the best tech gear to serve these ends.
As I see it the people behind the web right now are seeking to exploit this trend at the expense of the webs possible real world applications and services. Couple this with the ongoing monopolizing of web services by a select few, and the future of free and open internet is in jeopardy.
With this in mind it is possible to see the real benefits to pushing enthusiastic and knowledgeable elders out of the picture. Without the inputs that we can make based on our real world experience the slide of the web into money making mediocrity can proceed unimpeded.
I for one will not be cowed by these new upshots. They keep forgetting that they will be our age , and what trends they start now will only come back to haunt them. And I wonder what they are planning to do with the expanding elder population? We are not going away any time soon. I for one intend to help as many elders as possible learn to use the web. Learning new technologies will keep the mind working and the body useful.
I better stop. I can get worked up just a bit. Thanks for the space and place. I love your site. Stay safe.

Hear ! Hear! The "Over the Hill Gang" has something the young techies lack -- a lifetime of experience.

Unfortunately, it's not only the tech world having this 'grow up, please!' issue. It's in the financial industry big time. You could not have convinced me when I trained as an accountant 30 something years ago that our education system would graduate accounting students who couldn't add without a calculator and believed the theory they receive in class really work in the real world.

These are the same BA/BS/MBA's that are going into financial planning, banking and working in some of the largest companies in the country.


My,oh My! -- did Crabby's post and the subsequent comments ever ring true for me. When my husband and I did "early retirement" over 5 years ago; we decided that we wanted to work for ourselves -from our home. After exploring many "opportunities" and discovering some of the good, the bad and the ugly; we settled on internet marketing. For two people having spent over 25 years in public service the world of internet marketing presented a huge learning curve. I had worked for an Area Agency on Aging supervising senior volunteers. We encountered "ageism" quite regularly; but my attitudes about aging were learned from the senior volunteers with whom I worked.
My husband and I were finally able to find some IM Mentors, (in their 30's) who were able to recognize that our learning curve has absolutely nothing to do with our "age" but with our lack of experience with the internet world. We plan on using our life experience to master the internet experience. I would encourage everyone else to do likewise.
I love to read TimeGoesBy and look forward to getting my FeedBlitz whenever there is a new post.
Go gitum, Crabby!

How depressing! I'd hoped I was just being unlucky in my jobsearch (I'm 46), but now it looks like I've stumbled into the ditch and will stay there.

Of course, the lack of older techies probably explains why products are so impossible to use - all designed by babies.

Anyhow - this is all very well, saying "they're so wrong", but what we need is an actual progressive step in our favour - one that doesn't depend on legislation.

Any thoughts? More wrinkly-owned businesses? Use our experience to take over the world? It used to ours, after all!


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