On Sunday, Scott Kirsner’s Boston Globe column raised the issue of age discrimination and startups, collecting a laundry list of reasons why many young, innovative companies are subtly (or not so subtly) biased against older workers. He concludes:
Ten years ago, if there was a bias evident in the Boston start-up scene, it tilted toward companies run by experienced (read: older) management teams. If there wasn’t one in place, the venture capitalists who poured in the money often recruited a few graybeards for key roles. But in the post-Zuckerberg era, the pendulum may be swinging the other way — not too far, in my judgment — with investors more comfortable backing purely postcollegiate teams.
The list is very interesting, and several of the considerations are understandable. Young founders may get along better with younger workers, young people may be more enthusiastic about masochistic work hours, etc. But, for the sake of argument, I started asking about some of the best reasons for startups to hire older workers.
Perhaps the best is that discriminating against older workers is illegal. Short of outright discrimination, however, Kirsner’s column nicely illustrates how hiring decisions end up depending on the values embedded in a startup’s culture. In many cases, those values end up pushing young companies (particularly with young founders) to hire younger workers. But different values, arguably just as valuable if not more so to a startup, can push in the opposite direction.
Before I offer my own thoughts, a great conversation popped up on Twitter between Brian Chemel (Digital Lumens), Jeremy Weiskotten (Terrible Labs), Brent Grinna (Evertrue), and Bilal Zuberi (General Catalyst). Here’s just a sampling of it:
For the sake of argument, here are a few more reasons to fight against the cultural values that downplay age in your startup:
Successful entrepreneurs are older than you think
The research Brent cites above finds that more experienced entrepreneurs tend to raise more venture capital. Other research has found that both the average and median ages for entrepreneurs in high growth industries is 40.
Hiring based on more data
One of the few reasons in Kirsner’s column that I thought was nuts was this:
Why haven’t you retired to a private island yet? One founder of a Boston software start-up, speaking anonymously, told me that in a world where one of the objectives is to get rich by working for a company that either goes public or gets acquired, there were always unspoken questions around people in their 50s or 60s interviewing for a job. Namely, if you’re such a power player, why haven’t you already hit the jackpot and retired?
I sincerely hope people don’t approach it this way, and if they do, they’re wildly underestimating the role of chance in entrepreneurship. But while this extreme view is misguided, the fact remains that older workers can offer more data on which to base a hiring decision. You’re not going off recommendations from college professors, and you have way more past experiences to ask the candidate about. This should be an opportunity to make better hiring decisions.
Innovators get older
Because of the prevalence of web and mobile apps, it often feels like everyone is a solid year of learning to code away from being a technical founder. And there’s something to that. But broadly, history is moving in the opposite direction. Back in the 19th century, the idea of a self-taught, solo inventor was actually plausible, simply because the scope of existing knowledge was dramatically smaller than it is today. Fast forward to the 21st century, and most breakthrough innovation is done by teams of highly educated, specialized workers, collaboratively. (Data via this book.)
Yes, I’m stretching a bit with this last one, but I think there’s a parallel. As technology becomes increasingly complex, the idea that you can know enough at age 22 to meaningfully contribute to a truly innovative enterprise becomes increasingly less plausible (though of course far from impossible). Sure, plenty of older workers will be even less well-equipped for these challenges (perhaps especially on the consumer Internet space). But I do think we’ll increasingly see one’s 20’s as necessarily dedicated to education in one form or another. Just like you seldom would hire someone halfway through college, many employers might one day feel the same about 20-somethings.
Those are just some things that popped into my mind. I’d love to get your thoughts on ageism and startups. So go read the Kirsner column, and come back and leave me your thoughts in the comments.