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Stop That Bus (I Want to Get On)

What if the feeling you’re feeling when that Peninsula-bound luxury shuttle rumbles by isn’t resentment or hatred? What if it’s envy? The ballad of the left behind.

It’s 6:45 on Monday morning in Noe Valley, and, as usual, I’m pumping away on a stationary bike in a storefront gym. The spin class instructor’s iPhone is plugged into a portable speaker, hip-hop lite urging us on. I’m breathing hard. I feel good. Suddenly, light splashes across the room—a bus has pulled up outside, its towering sides reflecting the morning sun. Pure white and spotless. Dark-tinted windows. No label, but an LED sign over the door: “GBUS TO MTV.”

Two or three people in their 20s who’ve been waiting outside, accompanied by their well-behaved dogs, climb aboard. Then the door eases closed and the bus glides away, heading 35 miles south to the immaculate town of Mountain View, to the Googleplex.

I keep on pedaling, going nowhere, nagged by the question that’s been dogging me the past several months: Was that the future leaving me behind?

The corporate perk I just witnessed has become an achingly familiar one in these parts, and a noisy, flashy metaphor for whatever we feel about the tech industry in our midst: annoyance, resentment, paranoia, even something like hate. In the Mission district in May, affordable housing protesters bashed a piñata in the shape of the Bus; in June’s Pride Parade, another group of activists leased a white bus as part of an elaborate, unflattering parody of the techies; and no less a social critic than George Packer in the New Yorker called the Bus “a vivid emblem of the tech boom’s stratifying effect in the Bay Area.” There is nothing like a shining white chariot sailing through the streets to remind us on the sidewalk that we are not the anointed. The implication pisses off a fair number of San Franciscans.

But what if you don’t hate, or resent, or self-righteously mock the Bus? What if you want to be on the Bus? What if, when you are pedaling madly at 6:45 in the morning and watching the Bus pull away, the emotion you feel is not anger, but envy?

My own fixation on the Bus began in April, when I lost my job at age 54. For more than 20 years I’d survived in the tempestuous media ocean by surfing jobs from reporter to critic to editor. For the last dozen years I had been a high-ranking magazine editor—first in the Midwest, then in New York, and ultimately here—helping steer some of the industry’s biggest and most lucrative powerhouses: Better Homes and Gardens, Oprah, Sunset.

I was a success in a profession that was growing less successful every day. Print media, as we all know, is on a downward trajectory, its audiences increasingly distracted, its advertising revenues diverted into all things digital, leaving us print people watching anxiously as our staffs shrink and our budgets crumble. When Steve Jobs held up the first iPad almost four years ago, I got editor goose bumps—that was where everything that I put together, words and images and ideas, would live. That was exciting. But rather than streaming me into a digital expansion, my job more often involved trimming line items and laying people off. Finally, unable to reinvent my calling fast enough, I was shown the door myself.

A New York recruiter I’ve known for years called me when she heard that I was job-free. “Now’s your chance!” she said, meaning that I now had the opportunity to exit the death spiral of print publishing once and for all. She sounded almost jealous. At the time, it made me feel a bit better about getting fired. But I still wasn’t clear on how to turn the situation into some kind of luck. In the old world, I had mastered the rules and the etiquette and the language of career advancement. Now all of that seemed less certain. All I knew was, I wanted to be on the side that is reimagining the new, not defending the old.

“I just picked up The New Digital Age,” my friend said. “You should read it.” Written by Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, and coauthor Jared Cohen, and subtitled Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, the book is over-the-top bombastic. The authors set out to “explore the future as we envision it, full of complex global issues involving citizenship, statecraft, privacy and war.” All of these things and more—world hunger! hair salons!—will be radically transformed, they say, by technology. And that’s just the book’s introduction.

“What happens in the future is up to us,” the authors write. Us? I’m elated: They’re including me! In the past, my inner journalist would have rolled her eyes at such pronouncements. But after years of watching my own profession erode, I’m willing to defer judgment. I could use some optimism.

I start my new unemployed life in accordance with multiple online job-hunting articles and the advice of a career coach: Recast the résumé into tech-speak (I’m no longer an editor—I’m a content strategist); start the networking engines; ramp up the LinkedIn activity. I look into classes on social media marketing, coding, online multimedia. I resolve to tweet at least once a day. In a burst of positive thinking, I even find a listing for a product marketing manager job at Google that might, maybe, match my skills. I fill out the online application and click Send. Hey, Mr. Schmidt! What happens in the future is up to me!

But the next morning on the spin bike, as I watch the Bus pull away, I’m hearing a very small but definitely nervous voice in my head: Maybe I’m too late.

Page 2: Tech industry reality versus "the magical unicorn castle thing."

 

Tech culture thrives on the notion that it is always rushing forward, while everything and everyone else is always falling behind. That message is especially resonant in the Bay Area, home to more technology workers than any other metropolis in the country. One out of ten employees in San Francisco and Oakland is in tech—in Silicon Valley, it’s one out of three. The tech media capital is here, not in New York; the mythologizing of today’s billionaires happens here, not in Los Angeles. Here, we see the mightiest companies experimenting with our everyday lives right in front of us. Google’s ambition to organize all knowledge takes on very mundane forms here. An engineer at a Japantown festival shares his Google Glass with a cop. A prototype driverless Google car cruises beside you on 280 (human on board). Clamped atop a parked car on your block is a Google Maps Street View camera. We are eyewitnesses to the future in beta.

The lean-in language of the industry—especially that of the startup and the entrepreneur—permeates even our nontech lives. BloomThat, a floral service that delivers by bike messenger, trumpets that it was “founded with a rebellious spirit and a crazy goal.” We’re talking flowers to your door. By bike. Hardly crazy. When Twitter employees venture onto Market Street to clean up around their headquarters, they tweet #FridayforGood: Even picking up trash becomes, when hashtagged, a meme for global progress. Recast in tech speak, everything sounds cool. Amateur cab drivers are renegades; app developers who map your morning run are revolutionaries. Anyone who fixes anything is a hacker.

And then there’s the whole celestial rapture language. Investors are angels. Walking into an Apple Store, with its soft pure daylight and white surfaces, is like stepping onto a Hollywood movie set of heaven. The June cover of Wired—still improbably printed on dead trees—is an image of an otherworldly pastel sky. “Awake,” the headline reads. “When the objects around us can talk to one another, the elements of our physical universe will converge and spring to life.” And lo, on the seventh day, Silicon Valley rested.

Not on the Bus? Not heading to heaven.

Logging on to LinkedIn, I check on that Google position I applied for. “On fire!” the listing says in hot orange type. “96 people have clicked.” The tiny flame icon begins to look like a cartoon symbol for hell.

Some friends think I’m getting ridiculous. “You’re feeling anxious because you’re in publishing. You’ve been upended by technology,” says one, an executive at a nonprofit. Another laughs when he hears me talking about feeling like an outsider looking in. “It’s the magical unicorn castle thing,” he says. His software development business, like hundreds of others, is in fact a business, not a revolution. The tech industry, he says, “wants you to think there’s something really special going on. It’s a fantasy. It’s still an industry, with lots of people working hard who aren’t making that crazy money.” And, he adds, there are plenty of people who don’t get the big-company perks or the security of full employment, let alone the ticket to heaven. Don’t take the magic castle thing seriously, he advises. “Just a lot of hype.”

True, but forgive me for wanting to ride that unicorn. I network around to find a colleague of a colleague who recently started working at Google. He’s a sane guy, extremely creative, who worked in the media and advertising worlds long enough to know that he needed out. I ask him what he likes about the new job. Turns out it’s not the perks. “Google really does want to change the world,” he says. “We think about that every day.” I listen for irony, but he’s sincere. I not only believe him—I find myself craving what he has. There was a time once when I had that kind of idealism, but a couple of decades of reality forced the notion to the back of my brain. Even if tech culture is inflated with hype, I can still see the shiny kernel of something different at its core. And that thing I see isn’t hype—it’s hope.

The last day of June, I’m jostling at the edge of Market Street as the Pride Parade rolls by. This year’s parade is notable for the newly married and triumphant couples, but also for the large numbers of marchers representing high-profile tech companies. Waves of employees, LGBT and friends of, march for Twitter, Zynga, Facebook, Yammer, Google. Each contingent wears its own version of a rainbow T-shirt. Mark Zuckerberg is there, wearing purple, waving and smiling from an imitation cable car along with 700 Facebook friends and family.

Google has a turnout of 1,300 Gayglers (the official name— Google it) in a range of colors and nationalities, all smiling gorgeous smiles. Their T-shirts are cleverly written in a bit of HTML code—an inside joke that I, of course, am not privy to. As the groups pass, I forget all about the Bay Area as a hub of gay culture. Right now it’s the epicenter of smart, happy, sincere, socially aware, HTML-conversant, well-employed people. Every one of them under the age of 35.

I scan the teams: Women, check. People of color, check. Couples both straight and gay, check. But I don’t catch a glimpse of one middle-aged woman. Except, perhaps, maybe, among the Oracle folks—is that gray hair? Then the Oracle team is gone. A much smaller turnout, a little more ragtag, T-shirts not nearly as cool.

This parade of youth, of course, is simply a fact of the industry. The median age of the average American worker is 42, while the median age at leading tech firms (as reported by the employment data company PayScale this July) is much younger: At Apple, it’s 32 years. LinkedIn, 32. Google, 29. Facebook, 28. The more established hard-core computing firms trend a little older, such as Oracle (38) and Hewlett-Packard (at 41, the oldest in PayScale’s group).

Page 3: "I feel old," my startup friend says. She's 35.

 

In the past year, there have been rounds of news stories about how the industry is either sanguine or downright gleeful about the fact that it’s made up of young people. Many venture capitalists and company executives say straight out that young people have more energy and time (no pesky family responsibilities) and are just plain smarter (thanks, Mark Zuckerberg). The entrepreneur Vinod Khosla has been quoted as saying, “After 45, people basically die. They keep doing what they were doing before, and it’s the worst thing that can happen” to a tech business. Khosla later put his comment in a larger context (that experience can count for something). But still, it’s less than encouraging to a middle-aged woman with a liberal arts degree.

Even those working to bring more women, African Americans, and Latinos into the tech fold hesitate when asked about age. “Age is a barrier to entering the tech industry, even more so than gender,” says Michele Weisblatt, executive vice president of Women in Technology International, an advocacy and consulting group. “It comes down to dollars and cents. A company can mold a younger person and at the same time pay her less” than an experienced worker.

Cliff Palefsky hears this all the time. A prominent San Francisco employment attorney, Palefsky often represents tech workers who have been let go after years of service. “I spend 80 percent of my time as a psychologist, dealing with people in the throes of losing a job,” he says. “Their concerns are, honestly, to do with money. They wonder, will I ever get another job? They’re not so much worried about the existential question, am I on the Ferris wheel of life?”

“How old are you?” Palefsky asks me bluntly. I’m a bit taken aback, but given the clientele that he deals with every day, I shouldn’t be. “54.”

“Oh,” he says, “you have plenty of time to move on.”

As I’m sure I do. I’m not, for some reason, worried about never working again. What I am worried about is the precise nature of that work. I want to be where the action is. To Palefsky, that’s a nice ambition, but it’s too existential. His main objective is to help his clients once again put food on the table, not to find them stimulating, ennobling jobs that will enrich their souls.

Fred Turner, however, gets my mental state—or at least sees my angst as something more than an idiosyncratic (and admittedly privileged) state of mind. “Technology is brilliant at turning products into symbols of youth,” says Turner, an associate professor in Stanford’s communications department who writes about the history and culture of tech. “We see the conflation of cultural desires—like youth, progress, optimism—with technologies. The industry has made itself a symbol of youth.” Part of the allure of an industry built on constant change is that it never grows old.

Turner gently nudges the now-familiar age question toward me. “I don’t know about you, but I’m 52,” he says. “I’m guessing that like me, you’re entering that stage where being part of technology might represent a way to hold on to one’s youth.” His words cut close to the bone. I suddenly feel very naked.

“This all has a deep human component,” Turner continues. “American culture values the young, and the technology culture is very American. Also, there’s that terrible imperative: If you’re not running on Internet time, you’re falling behind.” He keeps talking, but I’m hardly listening: I’m stuck on what he’s just said. My tech angst doesn’t derive from concern that I’m too slow to code or too proud to slide down the org chart, or even from a desire to leave old media for new. The root problem is that I’m too old to be young. Which may have less to do with my actual age than with, as Turner sees it, an industry built on accelerating obsolescence. This goes for products—the tablet usurps the desktop; the smartphone crushes the camera—and it goes for people.

I meet up at a café with a friend who escaped from magazines to a lifestyle website. She’s happy that she got out, but she tries to clear up any rosy view I might have of the startup life. Hour-by-hour deadlines, pivots in tactics every other day, a tech team that works all hours just for the fun of it—she doesn’t even have time for a cappuccino before heading back to her cubicle.

“I feel old,” she says. She’s 35.
 

With the help of Google Maps, I drive down to Google headquarters in Mountain View and thread my way into the campus. Looping around, looking for Building 43, I pass the turnaround where the Bus lands. And there one waits, taking on employees for the ride home at the end of the day. Seeing the workers toting their backpacks onto the Bus, the big Playskool-colored shared bikes leaning in racks, and the campus of gleaming glass-and-steel buildings surrounded by well-kept plantings, I feel like I’m visiting a prep school for rich, popular kids.

I’ve been dipping around the website Meetup.com, a huge networking marketplace where you can find virtually any affinity group—backpackers of the East Bay, lovers of classical guitar, Wiccan allegiants. I get alerts about all things tech, as well as recommendations for 100 groups within 50 miles of my neighborhood. Overwhelmingly, they have “startup” or “entrepreneur” in their title: Lean Startup Circle (4,794 members). Startup Mind SF (3,255). Not Another Startup (225).

Tonight, it’s “Startup Grind: Silicon Valley Hosts Vinod Khosla.” As a cofounder of Sun Microsystems and a longtime venture capitalist, Khosla is one of the Valley’s most revered entrepreneurs. He’s also the man who said that you’re dead, idea-wise, after 45. More than 250 people are expected at the Googleplex event.

Many meetups are all about drinking and networking, but here, most people pass up the pizza and stake out seats as close to the front of the room as possible. The audience mix is young, but includes some middle-aged men and women who, I gather as I eavesdrop, have been part of the Valley for some time. Startup Grind’s maybe-30 founder, Derek Andersen, sits on a chair next to Khosla and asks the crowd what they want to hear about. “What’s hot for investing?” someone shouts. “What about agriculture?” “How do you scale from small to midsize?”

Khosla—cropped gray hair, an artist’s long, thin hands—is a highly entertaining contrarian, and I instantly like him despite his ageist remark. He kicks off the discussion by asking, “Who here wants to do a startup?” Many hands are raised, but not all. “Why are you here if you’re not going to do a startup?” he asks, smiling but serious. “It’s the only useful life to live.”

Khosla has refined his philosophy into inspirational sound bites: “Most people are limited by what they think they can do, not what they can do.” “There’s no courage if you’re not scared.” “Think big, act small.” He even tacks toward the evangelical: Most startups “need this religious belief in your idea,” he says, “so you’ll survive long enough to get lucky.” The whole session boils down to this: Take risks. Don’t be afraid to fail. Start something.

It’s good advice, but it’s also obvious, especially when spoken in the well-honed patois of the techno-titan. Instead of sitting in the ’Plex on a sweet summer evening in this blessed Valley, we could easily be in a big chain hotel’s windowless conference room, taking in a Donald Trump–endorsed seminar called “Think Yourself to Riches.” Google’s magical unicorn castle is a very posh office park, but still an office park. The fundamental promise isn’t Zuckerberg fame and bazillions, but that you, like Khosla (who is 58, by the way, and definitely not dead), can work your way to success if you don’t accept failure. It’s a promise as old—yes, old—as Benjamin Franklin and the American Dream.

Looking around at the intent audience, I think about a conversation I had recently with Linda Oubré, dean of San Francisco State University’s College of Business. She describes her students, many of whom come for the entrepreneurial and technology programs, as “nontraditional—first-generation college, single moms, military vets.” Their stories are fascinating to her—and to me. “They have no anxiety about technology,” she says, “just an assumption that it will be part of their lives.” For Oubré, the seductiveness and hype of the industry are its least valuable aspects. “What’s more interesting is that many of the students say, ‘I want to have an impact on the world.’” A number of them are working on a project to bring laptops to children in poverty. “It’s easy to build a computer,” she says. “But a $20 computer? That takes innovation.”

When Khosla finishes talking, audience members line up to ask him questions. First is a twentysomething named Chris who identifies himself as an art school grad and furniture maker. An outsider, maybe, like me. When the meeting breaks up, I seek him out. Turns out, Chris Tolles is 27, is getting his MBA, and has already been involved with a handful of startups—including one that developed a simple light-reflecting dish to boil water in fuel-deficient regions. And he’s working on his next invention.

“I got bitten by the social enterprise bug,” Tolles says. “Many people just want to be in charge, make some technology, sell it, maybe sell the company. I want to see a problem and solve it, then know enough to make it happen.” He finishes, “There’s a lot of noise around this startup world. But the startup isn’t the point, is it?” No, I think, it’s not.

Next Monday on the bike, I still feel a pang when the Bus drives by—but only a small one, and this time it’s not envy I feel, but impatience. That tech angst? Over it. The age thing? Nothing to be done about it. Let the Google job be “On fire!” Let the Bus sail on. I might be too old to be young, but show me a 25-year-old who’s reinvented magazines, survived sinking corporations, and rewritten her own job description. I’ve already been my own startup, half a dozen times. I just need to figure out how to do it again.

 

Originally published in the October 2013 issue of San Francisco

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