Twitter Lawsuit Is Latest Symptom of Silicon Valley’s Ageism Problem

A blog about business and economics.
July 15 2014 5:37 PM

Former Twitter Employee Sues the Company for Age Discrimination

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Young enough to work for Twitter?

Photo by Kacper Pempel/Reuters

When Mark Zuckerberg was 22, he said five words that might haunt him forever. "Younger people are just smarter," the Facebook wunderkind told his audience at a Y Combinator event at Stanford University in 2007. If the merits of youth were celebrated in Silicon Valley at the time, they have become even more enshrined since. Twentysomething CEOs like Evan Spiegel and Aaron Levie are standard at tech companies that command billion-dollar valuations. The elite Thiel Fellowship for college students-turned-entrepreneurs is nicknamed "20 under 20." Forbes publishes a now-annual list of the best and brightest "30 under 30."

So it comes as little surprise that the tech community often runs into accusations of age discrimination. The latest allegations come from Peter H. Taylor, Twitter's former manager of data center deployment. In a lawsuit filed with the Superior Court of California last week, Taylor, 57, claims he was wrongfully terminated by Twitter last September based on his age and a physical disability.

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"Plaintiff's supervisor made at least one critical remark about plaintiff's age," the suit alleges. "The persons defendants employ in positions similar to plaintiff's position are all substantially younger than plaintiff. Defendants replaced plaintiff with several employees in their 20's and 30's." The suit also accuses Twitter of increasing Taylor's workload to an unmanageable level after he fell ill and was treated repeatedly for kidney stones, then firing him when he failed to complete the work.

A spokesperson for Twitter said in a statement that the suit is "without merit" and that "we will vigorously defend ourselves against it."

In 2011, Google reached a multimillion-dollar settlement in a similar suit with computer scientist Brian Reid, who was fired from the company in 2004 at age 54. Reid claimed that Google employees made derogatory comments about his age, telling him he was "obsolete," "sluggish," and an "old fuddy-duddy" whose ideas were "too old to matter." Other companies—including Apple, Facebook, and Yahoo—have gotten themselves in hot water by posting job listings with "new grad" in the description. In 2013, Facebook settled a case with California's Fair Employment and Housing Department over a job listing for an attorney that noted "Class of 2007 or 2008 preferred."

Whether Taylor or Twitter is in the right, the lawsuit is a reminder that age is right up there with gender and race when it comes to employment problems in tech. Older tech employees and executives have admitted to seeking plastic surgery and trading button-downs for T-shirts to fit in with the Valley's fresh-out-of-college culture. The pressure to look young now afflicts even the still-very-young, with twentysomethings in tech seeking out cosmetic touch-ups from surgeons, as Noam Scheiber reported in the New Republic in March. Age discrimination tends to be difficult to prove in court, but as a cultural problem in Silicon Valley, it's all but case closed.

Alison Griswold is a Slate staff writer covering business and economics.

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