A former SpaceX engineer has submitted a complaint of age discrimination against the spacecraft company owned by Elon Musk. The 62-year old former employee, John Johnson, alleges that upper management from both SpaceX and Starlink gradually diminished his job responsibilities and quietly handed his role piecemeal to engineers who were decades younger than him, and less experienced, too, as Bloomberg reports.
John Johnson gave a detailed account of his experience with the alleged age discrimination in an essay published on the whistleblower site Lioness. He explains that he was hired at the age of 58 to work at SpaceX as a principal optics engineer. He stayed on from 2018 until 2022, when he chose to resign after nearly two years of watching his work duties diminish following his return after surgery for a back injury in 2020.
Johnson planned for the surgery well in advance, and even delayed having the procedure done in order to see the company through a “major milestone.” When he returned after missing a few days — again, after a back surgery — Johnson says the tasks he’d handed off to junior employees during his absence were not restored. Johnson says he voiced his concerns to his manager but despite his suspicious, he didn’t bring up age discrimination until an engineer casually mentioned his possible retirement or death:
A few weeks later, the aforementioned manufacturing engineer said he’d now been assigned to “shadow me” to learn all aspects of optical metrology over the following two weeks. When I asked why, he answered that his Starlink manager had said I “might retire or die.” I was 61, with six more years to the standard retirement age, even if I was considering retiring—which I was not.
The engineer, realizing the egregiousness of the situation, reported it to HR just minutes later. I discussed the incident with my manager, and in a phone meeting, HR said an investigation would be performed. But nothing was done to remedy my situation or restore my job duties; and a few months later, that Starlink manager was promoted! When I told my VP about the incident, he said, “Well, you might retire…”
In the essay, Johnson cites employment laws in the U.S. that protect those who take medical leave or who may have disabilities. But it wasn’t until the “retire or die” comment that Johnson felt emboldened to speak up. He was also inspired by the publication of an essay by Ashley Kosak, a fellow (former) SpaceX engineer who said she faced ongoing sexual harassment at the company despite asking its human resources department to step in. Kosak eventually quit, and she adds that her harassers have “still not been held to account.”
Johnson submitted a complaint to state labor authorities in August of 2022, but neither SpaceX nor the Washington State Human Rights Commission have responded to requests for comment regarding the case — possibly because this could be an ongoing investigation.
And while John Johnson’s experience doesn’t mirror that of Ashley Kosak, as a self-described “older white male” Johnson claims he was nonetheless subject to the culture at SpaceX and Starlink, which reflects Elon Musk’s demands for “hardcore” employees. He says he was “quite hardcore,” working long work days often, and yet it wasn’t enough; it just didn’t conform to “the male-dominant youth culture” and “‘frat-bro’ mold” that saturated [his] former workplace.”