Now that Facebook CEO’s Mark Zuckerberg’s two days of testimony before Congress are over, the postmortem floodgates have opened. From the Evening Standard: “Mark Zuckerberg’s coming of age: As the data scandal rages, Facebook’s billionaire boy-king is dragged into the spotlight.” The BBC’s Dave Lee writes on Zuckerberg’s “dreaded homework assignments.” Over at the Washington Post, we see how “Boy billionaire Mark Zuckerberg struggles to play the grown-up.” On Zuckerberg’s much-analyzed outfit, the Cut asks, “Who’s This Little Sweetie in a Big-Boy Suit?” And according to CNN, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which saw millions of Facebook users’ personal information sold to a political firm later hired by Trump’s campaign, constitutes a “growing-up moment” for the 33-year-old billionaire CEO and father of two.
See a trend here? According to the punditry, Zuckerberg’s protracted adolescence has finally come to an end, and we can all rejoice in a new, mature Zuckera where he wears suits and looks sorry. Too bad it came after a massive breach of millions of people’s private data—but hey, what can you do with kids these days?
Zuckerberg is indeed quite young for a billionaire CEO: He’s the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company by at least five years. But we’re at least a decade past when the word “boy” or any attendant immature metaphors should be used in relation to him. He’s not playing at being grown-up; he’s been one for the past 14 years. His continued infantilization not only lets him escape the consequences of his very-adult actions, but also highlights a larger social inequality, in that such extended immaturity is afforded solely to white “tech bro” men.
Peter Pan mythology is rampant in the male-dominated world of Silicon Valley, where adult men get free laundry, food, and access to “toys” bearing the ability to change the very fabric of our democracy. These ostensibly eternal children are encouraged to move fast and break things, never looking back at the things that they broke. Even the term “tech bro” evokes youthful collegial stupidity, the anti-frat star armed with hoodies and flash drives rather than Solo cups and Vineyard Vines. And a fair amount of the older journalists covering these “boy kings” play right into this mythos, covering Silicon Valley with a kind of bemused avuncular air, attributing missteps to guilelessness and the apparently inherent childishness of social media and tech toys.
When Uber CEO Travis Kalanick berated an Uber driver for “blaming everything in [his] life on somebody else” rather than taking responsibility, the apology he issued said he had some growing up to do. Kalanick was 40 at the time. And yet eternal youth isn’t available to everyone in Silicon Valley: Despite the fact that Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes is only a few months older than Zuckerberg, her well-deserved fall from grace wasn’t covered with the soft language of immaturity. She was treated like the adult that she and Zuckerberg both are because—surprise!—she’s a woman. As soon as girls hit puberty, they’re subjected to the old adage that women mature faster than men; we face up to the consequences of our actions while simultaneously being treated as ignorant children in any other context. Black girls in particular are never allowed the innocence of childhood: From the age of 5 we’re perceived as needing less protection and nurturing. And lives that are multiple decades long, let alone extended growing up periods, aren’t afforded to actual children like Tamir Rice and Michael Brown, who were perceived as adults before puberty even ended.
Yet with Zuckerberg, we’re supposed to believe that at 33, with children of his own, this “boy-billionaire” is just now coming to terms with his own age. Maybe he’s actually bought into this narrative—it would explain why he’s been issuing the same mea culpa for 10 years. Children are selfish, and they rarely learn from their own mistakes if they aren’t held to any consequences. And that’s one of the many lessons here: If we don’t treat people like an adult the minute they become one, and not a moment earlier or later, they’ll never learn how to act like one.