A former SpaceX engineer published an essay today describing alleged age discrimination he says he experienced while he was at the company. “I saw my work roles gradually transferred to younger engineers who fit the company’s ‘frat bro’ mold,” John Johnson writes in the essay published on the platform Lioness.
“In the culture, in the environment of SpaceX, old people are rare. And when I say old people, I mean anyone over 40,” Johnson, who is 62, tells The Verge. In a job interview for his role at SpaceX, Johnson says he was asked whether he’d “be okay” working with young colleagues.
“In the culture, in the environment of SpaceX, old people are rare. And when I say old people, I mean anyone over 40.”
Over the four years Johnson worked at SpaceX, Johnson says he pushed himself extra hard to live up to Musk’s expectations of “hardcore” employees. He suffered a back injury in 2019, the year after he started at SpaceX. From there, he says, he was ultimately pushed to leave.
After resigning in June, Johnson filed a complaint with the Washington State Human Rights Commission alleging that SpaceX discriminated against him based on age and then retaliated against him for reporting “discriminatory acts.”
Johnson, who has worked in the optics industry since he was in his 20s, was initially pumped to join SpaceX in 2018 as a principal engineer. “I had never thought I’d work for SpaceX,” Johnson tells The Verge.
“I perceived a lot of stereotypes, about, you know, my age and all that kind of stuff. And so I wanted to break through that,” Johnson tells The Verge. He says he often worked 10 to 12 hours seven days a week for SpaceX, first in Los Angeles before being relocated to Redmond, Washington.
SpaceX being a “scrappy” company, Johnson says, he found himself “lugging many thousands of pounds of instruments and equipment around with pallet jacks” while on the job. He tells The Verge he now has damage to two of his vertebrae — and although doctors haven’t pinpointed what caused the damage, he says he started feeling the pain while working at SpaceX. The complaint he filed describes it as a “work-related injury.”
Just before having back surgery in February 2020, Johnson says SpaceX started reassigning other, much younger engineers to take over many of his roles. After missing a week of work for surgery, he returned to work — but says his “roles and duties were not restored.” Over the coming months, even more of his responsibilities were given to younger, less experienced engineers.
“Retire or die”
Those engineers came from different backgrounds and lacked fundamental skills needed for the responsibilities they took over from Johnson, he says. “Each had a long learning curve ahead,” he writes. “The metrology engineer confided he had only operated one of the most basic instruments a couple of times in a lab class, and asked me for training. The manufacturing engineer had no experience with the basic machining process being used.”
In his essay, he writes that one such engineer was told by a manager to “shadow” him in case Johnson “might retire or die.” The engineer eventually reported that incident to HR.
Johnson spoke with HR and emailed SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell about those incidents, he says. They said they would investigate what happened. But ultimately, Johnson writes, “nothing was done to remedy my situation or restore my job duties.”
SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment by The Verge.
Johnson’s story is just the latest case of employees calling out SpaceX for discrimination and retaliation. Last December, former SpaceX mission integration engineer Ashley Kosak published another essay on Lioness describing years of sexual harassment she says she faced at the company. SpaceX was also sued earlier this year by another former employee who says he was discriminated against for his age and a medical condition.
You can read Johnson’s full story on Lioness. He says he hopes coming forward will push policymakers to hold companies the federal government has contracts with to higher standards when it comes to their work environment.
“It’s hard to go against someone like Elon who has all kinds of money to spend,” Johnson tells The Verge. “It’s scary, right? But we’re talking big giant government contracts that are going to a company that can only find young people to do work. It just seems absurd to me.”