Sujatha Nair is a 45 year old with 20 years of rich experience in the field of social development. She also has an experience of being part of a prestigious UN project, apart from an in-depth understanding of how social and health campaigns are rolled out. However, for the past few months her attempts to find a she has failed to land a job in India’s flourishing social development sector, having lost opportunity after opportunity to younger candidates and fall prey to ageism. It’s rarely blatant, but she strongly believes age is the main problem.
Many not-so-young yet highly talented and richly experienced people like Sujatha often struggle in the Indian job market oversupplied with young talent. A number of factors make recruiters, sometimes subconsciously, prefer younger applicants. They are often deemed more energetic, more adaptable to hectic and erratic work schedules and also have lower monetary expectations from the organisation.
Ageism, however, is not just part of the corporate workplaces. It is experienced and encountered by people on an every day basis. India’s entertainment industry has long been blamed for being ageist, with older actors and models constantly losing out roles to younger ones. The advertising industry largely portrays a world minus the elders. Unfortunately, this is discrimination, not many people are willing to talk about.
� Ageism at workplace: The 2015 Hollywood comedy ‘The Intern’ interestingly captured the story of a retired top executive seeking an internship programme at a new wave startup. His daily interactions with his young colleagues, the initial struggles of not being taken seriously in a new technology based organisation and his gradual overcoming of this bias wonderfully captured the movie’s tagline ‘Experience never gets old’.
In an age where our corporate workforce is largely comprised of young millenials, it is often difficult for those belonging to Generation X or the Baby boomers to feel equally valued and respected. Interestingly, ageism doesn’t just impact choices during recruitment. Employers often display negative attitudes towards older workers even if they are not necessarily less healthy or productive than their younger counterparts. Older employees are often overlooked when it comes to new career opportunities and learning and development programmes. Rather than rope in their huge experience to benefit the organisation, the over 50s are passed over for promotions and shifted to lesser important departments to “bide time” till they retire. In a world that super values youth, it also not uncommon to see older employees ill-treated and assigned work well below their positions in a subtle way to push them out of the organisation.
� Creating an open and equitable workplace: The course to correcting a wrong begins with the realisation that a problem exists. For ageism to be accepted as a real problem, we need to talk about it much like we talk about sexism and any other form of discrimination. Organisations that sincerely want to reach their full potential and improve retention and productivity must strive to create equitable workplaces where all workers irrespective of age, gender or any other difference, feel valued and respected.
Behind this subtle yet powerful discrimination are a series of myths associated with age. Older workers are often perceived to be technologically inept, resistant to change, less innovative and adaptable. However, what is clearly overlooked is the fact that older workers have much more experience, not just of a particular field but of life in general. This makes them a much needed pillar of support for any organisation that is looking to create a stable and sustainable future for itself. Older workers are also much more likely to stay in a job.
Combating ageism needs a multi pronged approach. It requires removal of all kinds of conscious and subconscious biases against a particular age group and mechanisms that promote people of all age groups working together in cohesive groups.
� Multi generational teams: Instituting opportunities for inter-generational or multi-generational teams to work together is a brilliant way to dismantle myths and stereotypes while engendering respect and goodwill among all employees. When younger employees get adequate exposure to working with older colleagues, they also get to learn important skills and tricks of the trade that only experience can teach. Older employees can also be offered to lead mentoring programmes for younger colleagues. Such an exercise will also act as a process of sensitisation that would help change younger people’s perceptions and attitudes towards ageing.
� Training and development: All organisations must invest in regular training strategies to teach their employees new skills, new technology as also train them about the need for adopting right attitudes, team approach and inclusivity. If you believe that older people are not adaptable to new technology, the simplest way to address it is launch regular learning and development programmes to onboard employees to newer skills and technology. This would include not just the older employees but any employee looking to adopt new technology. To be fair, it is not just older people who might be techno phobic, people belonging to any age group might struggle with new technology.
Promoting diversity and inclusivity: Ensuring diversity and inclusion must be the focus of all your efforts as an organisation. This also includes commitment to hiring capable candidates, irrespective of age, promoting the most qualified and capable candidates and ensuring that all workplace programmes are inclusive and do not leave the older employees out of their interest brackets. Even your branding initiatives such as the employee pictures displayed on your website must try to be inclusive of age, gender and races.
� Retain older workforce: Efforts can be initiated to retain employees past retirement. This will ensure a healthy mix of experience and youth in any organisation. This can be done by initiating friendly policies such as offering flexible working hours, work from home and consultancy options etc.
(The writer is director and creative strategist, CHAI Creative and Return of Million Smiles)