“..writing code, changing the world, usual weekend stuff”

Dalton is 15. Apart from that, he’s very likeable. I don’t want to be ageist. But, what’s he doing here and why is it agitating me so much? It’s the weekend and I’m in a room full of 150 hackers who’ve been burning the midnight oil to build the best technical solution in a coding competition run by online storage company, Dropbox. It’s an old-school hackathon and it’s true to stereotype. I estimate that we’re talking 99 per cent dark hoodies; 70 per cent spectacles; 66 per cent male; 88 per cent highly caffeinated. And 99.3 per cent adult.

Then there’s the 0.7 per cent. Dalton. Utterly unfazed, holding his own among a crowd of hard-core coders. He’s just getting on with business: writing code, changing the world, usual weekend stuff.

And that’s the cause of my anxiety. What I’m thinking: give us grown-up breadwinners a chance, kiddo! Take it easy while you can. I consider speaking to the organisers and having him removed but they think it’s all great. Wrong! Surely, there should be some sort of protection for all those who have ever actually used a landline telephone for the purpose of conversation or who have switched TV channels through the mechanism of personally applying manual pressure to the TV set itself.

Maybe I’m being paranoid. I weigh the thought. Exhale. Perhaps this is just a panic attack triggered by too many of the hackers’ intense energy drinks. Then, just as I begin to get some perspective, I recall chortling about those crazy folk in Silicon Valley. I read last year that the SV demographic that is experiencing the fastest growth in plastic surgery is the middle-aged computer programmer working in the tech sector. Approaching their mid-30s they begin to discover that they are too old for the ping-pong table and bean bags. “Young people are just smarter,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is reported to have told an audience at Stanford back in 2007.

Stories of older workers being ousted because of their age are legion. And by ‘older’, I mean they’re in their late 30s. Eighteen months ago a question posted on Quora, the online question and answer hub, asked: “What do people in Silicon Valley plan to do once they hit 35?”

In the Old Street tech scene I’ve never felt that sort of pressure despite having grown up in an age when typewriters were used and “cc” meant something. I’m pretty sure the same ageism doesn’t exist in Tech City. One ‘mature’ startup I’ve worked with did indeed find that tech investors confided that they had a mental model of what a startup team looked like and it wasn’t people over 30. But that didn’t happen until they crossed the Atlantic.

And there’s Dalton. Schoolboy. Hacker. Canary? Are the times changing over here, too? I mean to find out. Fuelled by Red Bull I march over to confront his mother. Because yes, Roslyn, the mother of this demon teenage coder, is also at the hackathon. I speak to her, determined to put her straight about the risks that bringing unnervingly cool young hot shots could pose to relics like me who want to continue in employment through their 40s and beyond.

Don’t you see? I explain. We could be in trouble here. We should protect each other. Form a guild. Keep the knowledge to ourselves. Create barriers. Invent jargon. And then Roslyn puts me straight on my facts. Dalton, it turns out, attends a hackathon every weekend. And he isn’t doing this to consign me and my cohorts to the scrapheap. Rather than seeking to gain an advantage over the golden oldies (or elders and betters — depending on your perspective) he’s here to learn and be inspired.

It’s about education. The syllabus is designed for a world that is ordered and predictable. It’s a world where kids learn facts and deal with questions that have wrong answers and right answers. If life ever was that clear it certainly isn’t any more because change simply comes at us too fast. We inhabit a world of permanent acceleration. Whatever may be right this morning may well be wrong by the time you next visit your Twitter feed.

“I want him to learn that anything is possible. That people can have ideas and turn them into reality within a weekend,” says Roslyn. “This isn’t what they teach at school. So we come to Old Street to work with all these people who have crazy ideas and who, for fun, try to build them into prototypes in a weekend.”

This calms me. The cult of youth hasn’t overtaken Tech City. Rather, the problem weighs on the shoulders of the young who are trying to outrun their education, which can’t keep up with a world that changes at each blink. Dalton asks if I’d like a chamomile tea and I think maybe we can collaborate.

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