Why is it that Bollywood can figure out what to do with old guys but corporate India can’t?
It’s a question worth asking with a tide of Amitabh Bachchan films released over the last year, each one attempting to make him more appealing than the previous. The cane, the gray, the wrinkles, we’re supposed to embrace and accept them as part of this modern-day hero.
Whether a pony-tailed star chef (Cheeni Kum), a musician (Jhoom Barabar Jhoom) or an oversexed widower (Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna), the industry is clearly packaging roles just for the superstar who turns 65 in October. Even as cinema continues to expose taboos from divorce to remarriage, Bachchan’s ageing characters advise youngsters, tell them what he’s learned and encourage them to move forward. Thus, entire plots manage to orbit around the Still Very Big B.
And so it should be in our offices. Instead, a flood of young employees— and the changing values, salaries and loyalties they bring—is creating a cultural disconnect in the workplace and the older ones seem to be fading out.
The findings of a recent Manpower India survey show that just 14% of employers had a strategy to recruit workers over the age of 50 and only 16% have implemented retention strategies to keep them at work.
For now, the Indian economy has been on the lucky side of the equation—two-thirds of India’s population is under the age of 36 and more than half is under 25. We are not facing the retirement exodus prevalent in Japan or Germany. But we must contemplate this generation gap.
On 20 April, I wrote about the viewpoint of younger workers who suddenly find themselves managing people older than themselves. Said one 26-year-old manager about his seniors: “I wouldn’t derogatorily call them old-timers, but they are the folks who end up living in silos.”
Yet the silo is filled with older workers who don’t want to be there, who want to be valued for their wisdom and experience. They teeter between blaming the young folks themselves and the realities of a growing economy with green industries that require fresh talent. Like the manager I quoted in April, they say an “us vs them” sentiment has emerged.
What most strikes me is the definition of “old.” One man I met recently said he was turned down for a job and the hiring manager explained the company sought younger talent.
Vrinda Walavalkar, a vice-president at Firstsource Solutions Ltd, turns 45 in November. “In today’s economy, I qualify as an older worker,” she said. “People like me are distressed when we see young people with what we consider mediocre qualifications making money we never would have,” she said. “But I have to ask, would we have done the jobs these younger people are doing?”
Many people in their 40s and 50s concede that their hard-working 20s were spent in an India where you put your time in to ascend or get raises.
Now, “there is a deliberate attempt to find short cuts to hard work,” said Soni Shrivastav, who works for the C.K. Birla Group and was born in 1964. “Age and experience are looked down upon.”
Fast paces, fast growth, fast lives. Wait, say their elders, think about where you’re going. Maybe even stop and ask us.
“Are they holding on to values? Are they not brash? Is the burnout rate equally fast?” Shrivastav asked in an e-mail she wrote me. “Are they at peace with themselves at the end of the day? Is family life contented?”
Interestingly, when you ask older employees about life at work, they still want to talk about the way things used to be—and the problems with the young.
“These guys are young kids, how can they manage people when they can’t manage themselves?” asks Usha Srikanth, vice-president of product engineering at a software firm in Pune. “If you don’t promote them, they quit. Everybody has an MBA these days. He thinks if he has an MBA, he can be a manager.”
As a supervisor of 120 people, she said she’s devised some ways to bridge the gap—and get over her nostalgia for the old days.
“The only way to connect to folks is to just sit with them, be part of them, have no barriers,” she says. She walks the canteen floor regularly and grabs young people to share lunch, to understand their lingo, to ask about their personal lives. She strives to be a mentor and thinks more companies need to employ systems to link old and new.
“They keep changing jobs, but the day the economy collapses in India, these guys will be out of jobs,” Srikanth said. “The youngsters beyond a point will not grow, they need grey-haired people like me who have made our mistakes.”
As a grey-goateed Bachchan demonstrates, such roles might not initially appear so central but they can steal the show.
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