In his first job at a newspaper, my Mumbai-based colleague Harish Chander, had to report to an editor some 20 years his senior. The boss insisted on being called by his first name, though the rookie simply couldn’t resist suffixing a “sir.”
“It seemed outright disrespectful to call him by his name. I had to train myself,” Chander told me. Like most Indians, including myself, Chander, who is now touching 40, is conditioned to respect anyone older than him. Outside work, I use the Hindi honorific ji for those visibly older than me—without asking if such reverence is justified.
In the modern and rapidly evolving Indian workplace, though, using such honorifics for senior colleagues may seem anachronistic—perhaps even hypocritical. Particularly when older workers increasingly face subtle, and often not-so-subtle, age discrimination.
While young people with the appropriate number of Instagram followers are seen as role models, experience is turning into a liability. Most senior executives told me they fear being seen as slower, change-resistant, expensive, and ultimately even useless.
“Ancient” and “menopausal” are some epithets that have been hurled at women her age, says 57-year-old Neelam Singh. Getting older, then, becomes their only identity. “When I stopped colouring my hair, I was referred to as ‘the one with grey hair,’” said Singh, who has been freelancing in the social development sector for two decades.
In the absence of any codified laws against age discrimination at work, those in volatile industries such as information technology or media, are particularly unhappy. “Younger peers often dismiss my suggestions at meetings. When a younger, male colleague makes the same point, he gets an applause,” said a 54-year-old engineer at a major IT company in Bengaluru.
Older, working Indian women like her not only have to keep up with a demanding career but are also often forced to take on a bulk of familial responsibilities. “After decades of service, I took a break to take care of an ailing family member. Apart from my maternity leave, this was the only time I took a break. Yet, when I returned, I was denied a promotion and it went to a man six to seven years younger,” she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. This denial of recognition came despite her having met all performance criteria amidst her difficult personal life.
One of the big reasons for the creeping ageism is the Indian media’s unabashed focus on the age of new tech entrepreneurs, many of whom started up in their early to mid 20s. If you Google “Ritesh Agarwal + coding,” you get less than 40,000 results. If you type “Ritesh Agarwal + young,” you get nearly ten times the results (Agarwal, 25, started Oyo Rooms in 2013).
The corollary of this obsession with youthfulness is the gradual distancing from middle-aged executives, mostly viewed as costly and antiquated.
“Someone from a unicorn company once asked me to recommend a talent from a great college with about 15 years of work experience in the e-commerce industry. But this candidate should not be more than 35 years of age, because the founder is not comfortable with older people,” a 51-year-old digital marketing executive told me. This employee of one of India’s biggest technology firms was himself called woh buddha—that old man—when he first walked into his office. “The assumption is that in the digital field, you have to be young and dress outrageously.”
Such disdain for the older is palpable even among millennials down the ladder. Even the threshold age for “old” has decreased rather drastically with each passing generation. “Some of the younger people have way less patience with people who have different characteristics or opinions,” said Karuna Bishnoi, 65, who retired after 30 years at UNICEF.
Millennials and Gen Z also use a different networking language from the previous generation, without realising its long-term impact.
I have worked with fresh graduates of the Indian Institutes of Management who complain about their company and managers publicly on Twitter, says Lloyd Mathias, who has been a marketing executive for 27 years.
Older workers tend to evoke derision particularly when they refuse to adapt and re-skill. Most Indians of working age have been groomed by schools and parents for a linear career trajectory. Join a company, be loyal to it, and slowly rise up the ladder. But this model now rarely works, including in people-heavy industries like IT. Even if you graduated from India’s best B-school in 1995, your knowledge is irrelevant by 2020 if you don’t become a student every now and then.
It becomes difficult for managers to admit they don’t know something and to sit in the same classroom as younger colleagues, or worse, learn from someone much younger, said Shruthi Bopaiah, head of client engagement and communications at Bridgeweave.
However, there are now enough tools and learning techniques available to navigate the world of new technologies without feeling overwhelmed. Bite-sized learning to joining online classrooms were among the top tips from my interviews with former executives from IT firms such as Infosys and Wipro.
And, if you are an older worker and this piece has failed to provide any solace, remember that age and karma do not spare anyone.