What should I do if I am not the CEO of a company by the age of 45?
Twenty years ago, hardly any newly-minted IIM graduate would have considered that question seriously. Or, at least, it would have required a brain laced with copious amounts of foresight or paranoia. Today, though, it should not sound so extreme to graduates of top management schools.
While the young in India struggle to find jobs, the country’s middle-aged elite professionals are hitting dead ends in their careers. Automation and slow economic growth have led to fundamental changes in businesses worldwide, and that has had an unkind effect on senior executives. From unexpected job losses and fewer opportunities to scale the ladder, to redundancy and boredom, they are facing career threats their parents never had to grapple with.
“By your mid-40s, if you aren’t about to become a CXO at a high-growth startup or a mid-size company, you are in dangerous territory,” says Sajith Pai, who graduated from The Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIM-A) in 1998.
And like a sacrificial goat, you are fed well till the day you are killed.
“You buy a 2-BHK in Mumbai thinking you will be earning (Rs) 1 crore forever, and then suddenly you are replaced,” says 44-year-old Pai. “There aren’t many high-paying careers beyond the age of 50—and that is if you are lucky.”
The fall begins with small humiliations. Sometimes you are made to report to someone younger, sometimes the cabin is taken away when you move to a modern office. Pai worked at a large media organisation for two decades and felt the pinch when he was asked to report to someone his age. He left the company soon afterwards mainly due to the print industry’s slow growth and inability to attract top talent. His last designation was associate vice president. “There are only finite CXO jobs, and that is a problem,” he says.
Unfortunately, most top colleges do not groom for leadership. “IIT-IIM types know how to crack the system and get a great start to their careers because, in the beginning, companies recruit for Six Sigma IQs” says Deepak Jayaraman, who graduated from IIM-A in 1999. “However, as you grow to be a CEO, you need above-average IQ with a healthy level of EQ and only a fraction of the cohort develops that over time.”
The other thing our parents never had to face is lack of respect for age and experience. Age discrimination is slowly rising in India Inc, particularly in the tech industry. Older workers are seen as rigid, expensive and outdated. “They think, ‘what can a 50-year-old teach us? He wears trousers to work,’” says Lloyd Mathias, who had been a marketing executive for companies such as PepsiCo and HP for over two decades, and is now an angel investor.
Career stagnation in the middle years can have a severe impact on mental health. A Bengaluru-based journalist—who did not wish to be identified—battled depression because he felt he wasn’t learning anything new as a rewriter for an English newspaper, while younger reporters were experimenting with new forms of story-telling. “I felt like I was getting into quicksand,” he says. He quit journalism after 20 years and joined a software company.
The impact is worse for women. “We have to do a lot to break the glass ceiling initially and when stagnation hits us, we blame ourselves and take it personally,” says Nisha Ramchandani, who handles outreach at the startup accelerator Axilor Ventures. “We do not demand upskilling or reskilling like some men do,” adds 33-year-old Ramchandani, who felt desperate with her corporate communications career because “she was growing in designation, but not learning anything new.”
But with a bit of re-programming and advance planning, you can stop these professional setbacks from becoming a full-blown, mid-life crisis. I spoke to executives who had high-flying first careers for tips on navigating a world that comes without the promise of long-term employment.
“Work means everything to us,” writes historian James Livingston in his book No More Work: Why Full Employment Is a Bad Idea. “And we’ve believed that even if it sucks, the job gives meaning, purpose, and structure to our everyday lives.”
Indians—who have the dubious distinction for taking the least amount of vacations a year—don’t exactly invest in creating an identity outside of work. Consequently, they miss out on a world of opportunities after the end of their first career.
Pai started writing in his late 30s to build a brand for himself outside the media industry. He is now routinely published by various news organisations, including Quartz, but it required a lot of patience and hard work. “It took seven years till I finally got my first viral hit,” he says.
Ramchandani also started researching on a topic she is obsessed with—Future of Work and writes for CNBC TV18 along with her full-time job. “I want to gain subject matter expertise instead of knowing a little of everything,” she says.
If you lose your job tomorrow, you should have five friends who can get you your next gig. You should also have five friends, who can be sounding boards when you make career transitions.
Do not be scared to pick an entirely new career. Pai moved to the venture capitalist firm Blume Ventures in his 40s. It meant having people a decade younger than him as peers, but he has no regrets.
You can always test the waters first, before committing to another career. “Start meeting people in different careers for coffee and simply ask them what a day in their lives is like,” says Jayaraman, who worked as a consultant with companies such as KPMG and McKinsey for several years before changing his career trajectory entirely. He now produces a podcast called Play to Potential, interviewing successful people from various fields about their journeys. He also helps senior professionals with big transitions, such as pivotal career moves or role changes.
You don’t have to be Jack Ma-level rich to consider early retirement. Start saving and investing from your early 30s. Read up on the FIRE movement (although such frugal living may not be for everyone.) The idea is to build a “fuck-off fund,” which allows you to walk away from a job where growth has stopped and humiliations are piling up.
Take a Vipassana course, practice daily meditation, or start journaling. “These can help you introspect and re-programme yourself,” says Jayaraman.
Here is some additional reading material written or recommended by executives who have gone through mid-career professional decline:
The 100-year Life by by Lynda Gratton, Andrew Scott
Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think by Arthur C. Brooks
Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career by Herminia Ibarra