BOSTON — Imagine a poorly reviewed restaurant that’s infamous for crappy food and service yet enjoys long lines of eager customers. That’s the situation in which the technology industry finds itself today.
The Nov. 1 walkout by an estimated 20,000 Google Inc. employees underscores the contradiction at play. Tech giants like Google have been charged with sexism, ageism, racism, misogyny, treason and more as the industry and its products continue to grow in influence. But U.S. workers seem inexplicably eager to get in tech’s door.
In his latest book, Lab Rats, How Silicon Valley Made Work Miserable for the Rest of Us, Dan Lyons writes about the soul-crushing workplaces created by technology companies despite the boasting about company culture and work-life balance. The so-called new economy is largely based on exploitative strategies using smoke and mirrors designed to give workers a false sense of security.
Industrial America has faded in prominence and physical working conditions may have dramatically improved for tech office workers. But economic conditions, and those that lead to emotional and financial stability, have not kept pace with the tech industry’s growth. That shortfall has resulted in demoralizing workplaces with epic employee churn. Loyalty and living wages have been replaced by superficial, feel-good perks such as nap rooms and free beer.
Also, the tech industry’s power and money are highly concentrated. Profits are funneled to senior execs and investors such as venture capitalists, private equity firms and hedge fund operators. Consequently, American tech workers are making less than their parents and without trade unions they’re in constant fear of losing their jobs. Their politically correct workplaces have morphed into “digital sweatshops, akin to the brutal textile mills and garment factories from more than a century ago,” Lyons writes.
Despite technology’s dire work dynamics, it appears that everyone wants in.
In May, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) indicated that she was disappointed dearth of black workers — 1 or 2 percent of the total — she found during a tour of Silicon Valley tech companies. Waters indicated during a visit to ride-sharing giant Lyft Inc.’s San Francisco headquarters that she could use her political influence to diversify tech’s workforce.
“I’m not about diplomacy,’’ Waters said, according to Fortune. “I’m not urging, I’m not encouraging. I’m about to hit some people across the head with a hammer. I know how to do this and I know how to do it well.’’
In September, a Boston law firm filed a class-action lawsuit against IBM Corp. alleging that the company discriminated against thousands of older employees in its hiring and firing process, Bloomberg News reported. The lawsuit came after ProPublica reported that IBM disregarded age-bias laws when it fired more than 20,000 employees older than 40 during the last six years.
Meanwhile, prospective workers are knocking on tech’s door. The industry’s feeder system of co-working spaces, business incubators and accelerators are going like gangbusters. Groups like Techstars Central LLC and Y Combinator Management LLC churn out class after class of startups launched by starry-eyed entrepreneurs. But if the tech business is so heartless and unpleasant, why bother?
“I think there’s a huge attraction to working in startups,” Lyons told NewsFundr. “The sector is pitched as being fun, sexy, cool.”
That image has fueled the growth of WeWork Cos., an 8-year-old New York company that mostly leases office space to tech-based companies and operates its own co-working spaces. It’s now valued at $35 billion to $40 billion, Techcrunch reported in October. The Capital Factory, a combination incubator and co-working space in Austin, Texas, has attracted national attention since launching in 2009 but produced very few — if any — sizable companies.
After the Google walkout, Cambridge, Mass.-based worker Vicki Tardif Holland, an eight-year Google employee, told Radio Boston she feels guilty about the limited opportunities in tech for those workers who don’t look the part.
“It hasn’t gotten materially better in the 20 years since I’ve been in this industry,” she said. “… This is an industry-wide problem.”