It's Tough Being Over 40 in Silicon Valley

Older workers are trying lawsuits, classes, makeovers — even surgery — to keep working.

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.”

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.

Lawsuits tend to be expensive and turn off prospective employers. Many older tech workers are just going to greater lengths to seem younger as they try to win over potential bosses younger than their kids. Besides the standard preinterview tricks—listing only recent jobs on résumés, freshening online profile photos—job seekers are investing in retraining, creeping on potential employers, and changing their appearances in all kinds of ways, including plastic surgery.

At ProMatch, a state-funded job counseling and networking program in Sunnyvale, Calif., Robert Withers advises his mostly middle-aged or older clients to cut anything on their résumés that’s more than 10 years old, to use a professional photographer for their LinkedIn headshots, and to hang out in the parking lots of places where they’ll be interviewing to see what the people there wear. Michael Peredo, a 55-year-old auto engineer dismissed from Mercedes-Benz in February 2015, says he had trouble giving up his bow ties for T-shirts, as some he met at ProMatch suggested. “I feel like myself wearing them,” he says. He spent 18 months out of work before landing a contract gig at Velodyne, writing software for self-driving cars. Just before that interview, he took off his bow tie.

“If you’ve worked at a large company for 10 years and get laid off, chances are your skills are six generations behind,” says Jonathan Nelson, chief executive officer of the Valley social network Hackers/Founders, which organizes meetups for startup developers. “I know downsized engineers in their 40s and 50s who’ve retrained themselves to build mobile apps or do big data—and others who are Uber drivers.”

Bob Schoenberger, 61, is among the unlucky ones. He’s taken classes to learn new coding languages since his job at chipmaking supplier Applied Materials was outsourced to Asia in 2010, but except for some contract work at medical device maker Hospira, he and his wife have had to subsist on now-exhausted unemployment benefits, savings, and cash from the sale of the land where they’d hoped to retire. Schoenberger plans to start a training program to become a pharmaceutical technician. “I’ve pretty much reconciled to leaving this area for someplace cheaper,” he says. “Cashing out the house and fleeing.”

One 60-year-old software engineer, fired in January after seven years at a chipmaker in San Jose, now wears casual button-downs, khakis, and sneakers to interviews, studies embedded systems (cell phones, video game consoles) at a local extension school, and has started working out and dyeing his gray hair a dark auburn. He also had blepharoplasty, plastic surgery to remove bags and dark circles under his eyes. “It’s smart to stay current and look as young as possible if you want to keep working in an industry where so many people are in their 20s,” he says. “I still want to work in tech, because I love solving problems. And I don’t yet have enough saved for retirement.”

Even the most aggressive attempts to pass for younger may not be enough. In the Valley, like most places, landing a job often comes down to networking. Cynthia Houston, 54, has a youthful, asymmetrical haircut and wears clothing recommended by her niece, but she’s been unemployed or working on contract for two years since she lost her job as a project manager at cloud services company VMware. Her most recent contract gig was at HP, a referral from a former colleague. “Every job I’ve gotten until now was through someone I knew,” she says. “But they aren’t around now.”

The bottom line: Older workers booted from Silicon Valley jobs are seeking restitution or, more often, going to great lengths to seem younger.