Ageism? Really?

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Scrunchup is a "web magazine" (some would call it a "blog") by and for young web professionals, where by "young" we mean "21 or younger". Anna Debenham is one of the founders and wrote a post about her experiences being discriminated against for being too young.

Some of her bullet points:

  • My first geek meetup in a pub when I was 17. I had to bring fake ID.
  • I couldn’t get a job after leaving school because employers don’t like hiring 18 year olds, despite their capabilities (which is why I went freelance).
  • When I was 19, I turned up at a book club that was held in an over 21s bar and couldn’t get in so I had to go home.
  • Next year is the first year I can go to SXSW. The cost of the ticket, flights and accommodation exceed £1,000, and as you have to be over 21 to get into any pubs in the US, I didn’t want to be sulking in my hotel room every evening unable to join in with the social events. You would not believe what torture it is reading tweets about how great it is every year.

Oh god, the torture! If you think that's bad you should try to imagine what it's like reading those tweets from SXSWers because you can't go because you can't afford it because you are a working web developer and have bills to pay.

I will acknowledge that the developer community can do a better job of opening itself up to young people just starting out, and part of that is not having every damned event in a bar.

But—and I'm really sorry to be a jerk about this—not feeling comfortable hiring an 18-year-old web designer for a business project isn't ageism. It isn't blind discrimination to say that a typical 18-20 year-old is still living at home (or in a dorm) and hasn't really had to support themselves.

You can say that's irrelevant. But living on my own is how I learned to take things seriously and recognize what's important. When I was Anna's age my living expenses were covered by student loans and my mom's credit card; today I have rent, bills, food, clothing and a wedding to pay for. I could go to more conferences, but SXSW would cost me over a thousand dollars. Is being part of that glorious party scene really worth taking a thousand dollars out of my wedding budget? Or not getting a new MacBook until 2012?

If you're a Web professional you're entrusted to deliver working software that accomplishes some business goals on time and budget, two things you'll never have enough of. When we talk about experience, you may as well expand that to experience with schedules and budgets, and any college senior (unless they're very fortunate) would have had to deal with at least one of the two.

Some other things an older developer would have done: fallen in love; fallen out of love and lived through a breakup; gotten over a breakup and started a new relationship, having hopefully learned from the mistakes of the last breakup; broken up again and hopefully learned some more. Web design is about communication, and Web programming is (often) about modeling people's behavior in a complex system. There are things about other people you know at 22 that you usually don't know at 18, and those things are relevant to our work.

Anna Debenham is 20 years old; she has a long career ahead of her and her 'ageism' problem will simply disappear in a year or two. (In fact, for having been so passionate about starting her Web career in her teens, she'll have a major competitive advantage over pretty much everyone else.) Meanwhile, a 49- or 52-year-old developer working in Silicon Valley today faces an ageism problem that won't go away, and they'd have a mortgage to pay and children of their own to support. Let's try to remember that while we're lamenting the tragedy of not being at SXSW next year.