Is ‘ageism’ rearing its head in the Indian workspace?

As the Indian workplace continues to get younger, are senior people finding themselves out of place?

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India is considered to have one of the youngest workforces in the world. After all, about 62.5 per cent of its working age population is between 15 to 59 years old.

With ‘Gen-Z’ and ‘Gen-Y’ gaining more significance in the workforce each year, in terms of numbers, the age disparity in the workforce is bound to increase. This may lead to the issue of ‘ageism’, that is, stereotyping of and/or discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of their age. This may be casual or systemic.

“Discrimination on the basis of age has always been there. It is not a new phenomenon. In the past, people within organisations simply tried to accommodate these discriminations and move on,” Naresh Kumar Puritipati, human resource director, Lactalis Group, tells HRKatha.

Explaining how discrimination on the basis of age was different in the past, Puritipati points out that in India, the workplace was traditionally dominated by senior people. Juniors were not present in such large numbers as today. Hence, the discriminatory behaviour may have been directed towards the younger lot. “Now, things have changed. Any incidence of discrimination is magnified by youngsters, thanks to the wide reach of social media. Further, if they feel discriminated against and decide to leave, these youngsters have far more opportunities awaiting them in the market,” he explains. “It is the senior people who may be in the soup,” he adds.

“Discrimination on the basis of age has always been there. It is not a new phenomenon. In the past, people within organisations simply tried to accommodate these discriminations and move on”

Naresh Kumar Puritipati, human resource director, Lactalis Group

Puritipati illustrates the outcome of demographic change in the workplace with an example. He was privy to the acquisition of an Indian proprietary-driven company by a larger multinational conglomerate. Older people existed in majority in the acquired company. “Post acquisition by the MNC, the culture changed. The youngsters had equal voice. Some functions were made independent. The boot was on the other foot. The senior employees felt they were discriminated against at the workplace due to their age,” he recalls.

Puritipati observes that the concept of ageism is more relevant to the start-up environ. “For startups, the gap is wide. There are more youngsters and fewer experienced people. Juniors may be having an unconscious bias towards the seniors. In traditional companies, on the other hand, seniors still continue to hold higher positions and the issue is not as relevant,” he said.

Anand Talwar, senior HR practitioner and former CHRO, ITC Infotech, shares that he has observed similar cases in family- run businesses. There, the younger generations face trouble dealing with the old-school mentality of the older generations, primarily because the latter are rigid when it comes to accepting change. “If the old guard is contemporary and skilled, there are no issues. If not, they become fossils. Then, there is a problem,” he says.

On the issue of ageism, Talwar holds a different view altogether, critical of how the work culture as a whole operates, “Age has got nothing to do with discrimination. I think it is more about how contemporary people are, the kind of contribution they are making, how they are bringing in business, and how they are able to handle shifts in technology, even while keeping track of changes in the marketplace. If older people are up-to-date with the shifts in the market, there is no way their colleagues will see them in a lesser light,” says Talwar.

“If the old guard is contemporary and skilled, there are no issues. If not, they become fossils. Then, there is a problem”

Anand Talwar, senior HR practitioner and former CHRO, ITC Infotech

“It’s high time we pay attention to skills and respect enterprise. Gone are the days of simply bowing to silver hair,” asserts Talwar.

Talwar elaborates that avenues for such forms of discrimination open up the moment a candidate fills an employment form.

In India, many employment forms still require candidates to enter their date of birth, sex and religion. Talwar finds this practice archaic. In the West, it is deemed redundant to the hiring process. Skills should be the only hiring criterion that should matter.

“There is absolutely no logical reason to not consider someone because of their age. I am surprised when I see job ads which automatically debar a candidate on the basis of their age. This is an extremely discriminatory practice, which, unfortunately, is still relevant in India,” says Manish Majumdar, former head- HR, Novo Nordisk.

Majumdar observes that stereotyping is common in Indian society. “Startups tend to stereotype older people as being less capable of being active in their working lives, and hence, less productive. Such stereotyping, where one is compelled to refrain from giving people a chance just because of the age group they belong to, is the projection of one’s perception over others,” Majumdar explains.

To minimise the issue of ageism at the workplace, in startups and other industries, Puritipati details a three-step plan.

“I am surprised when I see job ads which automatically debar a candidate on the basis of their age”

Manish Majumdar, former head- HR, Novo Nordisk

First, “At the time of recruiting a senior person, it is important to check whether the person one is bringing in is accommodating and can gel with the culture of the organisation,” he says. Second, a culture orientation or cultural assimilation of this person is essential. The company needs to be mindful of making such people understand how its culture is different from that of other companies they may have been associated with in the past.

Third, it is essential to create sensitivity in the existing workforce towards ageism. “One needs to make employees aware of what they can learn from the other generations. Tell them exactly why a certain type of talent is being brought into the organisation. Make them understand how it may be beneficial for them as well to connect with them,” he said.

Majumdar shares that having people of different ages must be a part of the DE&I agenda of a company, especially a startup. To ensure this, the recruitment ads must clarify that the organisation is an equal opportunity one. “Direct a message to the business as well that no statement in the job ad should be remotely discriminatory,” advises Majumdar.

He also adds that to ensure ground-level implementation of the DE&I agenda, an HR needs to keep a watch on the rejections. If a rejection seems odd and even remotely biased because of the age factor, then the HR needs to review the case and question the recruiter.

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