Silicon Valley’s Middle Class Dilemma

Almost everyone I know likes to claim that they are “middle class”. Yes, I know I live in Los Gatos, a nice little town that in many ways resembles Santa Monica or La Jolla. We’ve got a great library, a Christmas parade (I once marched in it with my kids as “California pioneers”), a nice neat downtown, several great parks, and what is generally considered a very good school system (although my daughter decided to short-circuit a slow educational malaise for Ohlone College after 7th grade). Yet we’re all “middle class”. Not wealthy. If pressed, someone might say that local resident Steve Wozniak is probably wealthy, even though he eats at Bakers Square during pitches.

But wealthy? No, most everyone I know (even several VCs) don’t feel wealthy. Oh, they hope to be someday. But with $5,000/mo mortgages, insurance and taxes going into Silicon Valley tract houses that went for $30,000 new in 1967, they definitely feel middle class. And scared they’ll lose it all if something – anything – goes wrong.

The problem with definitions of “middle class” is that they don’t take into account debt load and age. Many people who appear affluent in expensive areas of the country have very high debt load, dominated by mortgages. The only reason they survive is that good old mortgage deduction on their taxes.

People buy houses based on their current income and debt (unless, of course, they fell into the subprime disaster – note that many people who qualified for better ended up with these mortgages because brokers made more off of them). What if they lose their job, or their medical insurance tops out and they have to go out-of-pocket on medical bills? In this case, the fixed asset value of their house doesn’t help much, unless they can unload it at a profit fast, because once the debt load rises or you can’t validate the old mortgage with a paystub, you can’t refi and pull money out of that asset. But you still have to pay mortgage, taxes, maintenance and all that stuff. And in costly areas like Silicon Valley, that adds up real fast.

And finally, if you’re over 40, there’s a good chance you’ll not get as good a job, pay-wise, than you had when you were younger. We see it all the time here in Silicon Valley. It has nothing to do with education – I see very educated people here past 40 saying they’re “retired” rather than admit they have no job prospects. It has nothing to do with connections or talent – many of these people have established track records of products and successes and everybody knows it. It has everything to do with age. Nobody wants an employee over 40 because 1) the medical costs go up – I paid $70/mo for a 20-something in my engineering group in one of my startups and he had a major car accident that cost Kaiser plenty, while several 40-something engineers had monthly medical costs 10-times that and never got sick – and 2) old guys and gals aren’t “cool”, and investors and the few old survivor executives only want to be surrounded by youth to feel young.

Maybe that’s where the real Silicon Valley “wealth gap” lies. The super-rich winners believe they are immortal and beautiful (even if they are old toads) because they are rich, and only wish to deal with others like them (the current minimum in venture circles these days is about $100M) and they use the young to flatter their egos and not necessarily to line their pockets. The people who made them their successes – the generation of hard-working scientists, engineers and businesspeople that created the wealth – are disposable because their very presence is a reminder that the “wealthy” got there because of them.

So what happens to the guy who made that open source project succeed, or that gal who got those semiconductor patents together? They’re “retired”. Put out to pasture. There are no second chances in Silicon Valley.

The only bright light in this little meditation is that we should be happy they still use “retired” in the conventional sense, and not the Blade Runner sense.

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Lynne Jolitz is a Silicon Valley OS pioneer, inventor, and startup founder.

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