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The startup age bias

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One of the big articles of the week is Noam Scheiber's piece on ageism in Silicon Valley. It's a great read, worth setting life aside for more than a few minutes. The topic interests me not only because I think entrepreneurship is so important to creating wealth and having successful cities, but also because it speaks to what I've written about here and here. Namely, we're continuing to gorge ourselves on youth culture and "Millennials" in ways that present serious problems for cities and society. Devaluing the wisdom that people gain with age can only hurt an economy. By extension, focusing all of our urban energies on accommodating 20-somethings misses out on huge numbers of people that want to live in walkable places but have different needs and wants. 

Megahn McArdle writes about the piece:

The youth culture of Silicon Valley was remarked upon in the 1990s, but in Scheiber's telling it seems to have actually gotten worse. New industries often start out young, and then age to stately silver as the founding generation stays put at the top. But almost 20 years after Netscape started the first Dot-Com Bubble, Silicon Valley is still in a startup frenzy. And according to Scheiber, investors are looking almost exclusively for disruptive youth, not competent experience.

This has implications for the kinds of projects that get funded -- Scheiber argues that all this disruption is focused on stuff that 25-year-old nerds need, like cab-hailing apps and social networking, and not so much on the things that 45-year-old parents might want.

It also has obvious implications for the people who work at those companies. Unless an early stint at a startup makes you megawealthy, you may suddenly find it hard to make a living, especially if you've made mistakes like getting married, having kids or turning 40. This sort of thing obviously terrifies those of us who have acquired things like spouses, mortgages and a birthday in the 1970s.

Look, I'm not trying to demean youth culture - I'm a huge fan of the energy young people bring to cities and just life in general. But a little balance and perspective is in order. Youth is not any kind of good barometer for business knowledge or success, nor is it any indication of success in creativity. Youth does translate generally toward a less-settled life, and a desire to take more chances (good and bad). It also translates to doing stupid things like working for free or doing weekend-long benders because you don't know any better. One lesson I hope planners and economic developers can take away from this is: don't put all your eggs in the Millennial basket. By all means welcome youth and risk-taking, but also don't forget the needs of everyone else in society - you know, the majority.

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