Home >News >Business of Life >Layoffs leave people close to retirement groping in the dark

NEW DELHI : Sanjay Kher, 52, was in the hospital waiting to see his doctor when he texted his boss, requesting a few more days off to recover from surgery for oral cancer. Within minutes, his boss replied, telling him not to return. The financial services company was in a crunch because of the coronavirus pandemic and downsizing was the only way out, the boss explained.

It’s been three months since Kher received that text. He hasn’t got his final settlement and his savings are running out, especially since he’s been through expensive surgery for a serious illness. “I have been looking for jobs—part-time, full-time, anything—but I don’t know if I will find one at this age and time," says the Mumbai resident, who has almost 30 years of experience in sales and marketing.

The mayhem caused by covid-19 has not just disrupted the working lives of millennials but also older professionals. While youth struggle to find a find a job, care for families and pay EMIs in an economy that’s sliding into recession, older professionals have the added burden of health expenses and convincing potential employers that they still have a lot to offer. Employers too are tightening purse strings and want younger people who will work longer hours for less pay.

Though there is no clear estimate of how many people close to retirement age have been fired due to covid-related downsizing, HelpAge India’s recent survey of 5,000 people concluded that during the lockdown, 65% of people in the 60-80 age group lost their livelihood. Of this, 61% were in rural areas, and 39% in urban India. “In India, we don’t view the elderly population as a working class—that’s the biggest problem. They are facing a triple struggle right now: high health risk, loss in income and social isolation," says Rohit Prasad, chief operating officer, HelpAge India.

Pivoting to new careers, an option open to millennials and Gen-Z-ers, isn’t always available to those over 55 though many have deep experience and years of service. “There are jobs in the market but employers want young people who are ready to work for less salary. What employers don’t realize is that older adults bring something unique to the table: experience, a helpful attitude and knowledge acquired from years of work," says Saurav Das, co-founder of Zetta Women, a professional and social platform that helps women and people from the queer community find jobs. He’s recently extended his services to older professionals well. Many in their 50s or close to retirement age are not sure if they should look for work. “Some don’t know where to start, some are waiting for things to get better," he says.

Losing a job impacts mental health, which can have a snowball effect on physical health. “Imagine the toll of losing your job when you were about to retire. All this stress at a time of crisis can affect those who have pre-existing health conditions," Prasad of HelpAge says.

When the lockdown was announced in late March, Priya Sharma, 67, was asked to resign after 39 years of working as a math teacher at a private school in Bihar. “Who will give me a job now? I can’t even do tuitions because children can’t leave their house and not many here have the resources for a virtual class," she says. Sharma, who lives alone in Patna, is surviving on a monthly government pension of 400. “For people my age, it’s hard to get work because people see us as a potential covid risk," she says, referring to several studies that say older adults are more vulnerable to contracting the virus as their immune systems are weaker. “A job is not just a means to earn, it’s also about self-respect. It gave me a reason to wake up in the morning," she says.

Vidya Jayant, 52, an actor in Telugu films and advertisements with 30 years’ experience, hasn’t had an assignment for over four months. “There’s absolutely no support from any authorities. It’s like we are staring at a black hole." At home, financial troubles are mounting. “My husband hasn’t been paid for two months, my son has lost his job. I’m not earning. I don’t know how we are going to survive."

HelpAge’s Prasad insists the government has to step in. “The government should provide some sort of financial assistance, besides the pension scheme. The government needs to recognize the elderly as having value. Only then can the healing start," he says.

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