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Young or old, age needn’t be a bar

Challenging prejudices and ensuring meritocracy in hiring and promotions is a good starting point, writes Deepa A Agarwal
Last Updated : 11 July 2022, 19:30 IST
Last Updated : 11 July 2022, 19:30 IST

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As Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are becoming more than just a buzzword, organisations are taking active steps to tackle the biases against the historically excluded groups, such as gender, the LGBTQ+ community, Persons with Disabilities and others. Age and age discrimination, however, continue to be less spoken about.

As per UN data released in 2019, there are around 600 million people aged 60 and above, worldwide. This number is expected to double by 2025. With the increase in longevity, the number of people aged over 80 years is also growing. In such a scenario, age discrimination is likely to lead to a big divide between the generations.

Lynda White, Chair of the Center for Global Inclusion, says, “In the workplace, people are dismissed at both ends of the spectrum — not listened to and/or not heard. Older people may continue to do work ‘their way’ which has worked for them in the past, which the younger generations may not appreciate. The younger people, on the other hand, may believe they know best and exclude the experiences of the older generations. Herein lies the potential for strife and tension. One is fighting for the future and the other is fighting for the past.”

According to the World Health Organisation, "Ageism refers to the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age". Age affects everyone, younger and older people alike.

Not a fundamental right

The prevailing belief that ageism is not a problem in India, as the culture holds older people in higher esteem, is far from reality. As per the Global Study on Ageism, published by WHO in 2021, India ranks high on ageism.

The JobBuzz survey that included 1,940 employees, found that 33% of Indian employees have faced age-based biases at work. According to another study conducted by the employer rating and review platform TimesJob, ageism is overshadowing the biases faced due to gender and even homophobia.

Ageism in India becomes more complicated in the absence of a codified law on age discrimination. The fundamental rights in India include protection against discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Age is not included. This means there is no statutory body that can handle issues related to this form of discrimination. The lack of a law, however, should not prevent an organisation from taking active steps to address this issue.

“The law requires all persons to be treated with dignity, be it an extremely young apprentice or an older individual during their last decade at work. Where an ageist approach results in the mistreatment of an able and experienced employee, Indian labor law and/or criminal law can grant protection and retribution," says Aishvarya Varma, an advocate at the High Court of Mumbai's Goa bench.

"In my experience, progressive organisations always put a premium on value creation offered by the employee, irrespective of age," says Ashutosh Telang, Chief People Officer of a private equity firm.

In order for organisations to address this issue, they need to first understand the contradictions as well as the manifestations of age discrimination in the workplace.

Bias impacts young and old alike

A study conducted by the Department of Psychology at the Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany found that attitudes toward age stereotypes can lead to discrimination and impact productivity.

The age stereotypes can be both positive and negative. At one level, the younger people may be seen as energetic and tech-savvy but equally, be seen as lazy and/or easily distracted. The older generation, on the other hand, may be seen as reliable and experienced but may be stereotyped as being inflexible to change and technologically incompetent.

The study also mentions that age stereotypes influence decisions in hiring, career development, allocation of resources and social behaviours at work. This can happen across sectors, ranging from the younger population getting more call-backs for interviews than the middle-aged and older people with the same skill sets.

"Some organisations, especially the start-up and tech industries, believe that younger people will learn faster on the job. Therefore they may have implicit age criteria in their hiring policy," says Reji Varghese, managing director of a fixture manufacturing company.

For those employed, the nature of biases is different. Older people feel that they are not being given the same access to developmental and training opportunities whereas the younger employees feel they are dismissed too fast and called inexperienced. Ramesh (name changed), a young graduate engineer trainee said, “My political engagement and social engagement, is often disregarded as being a fad for me.”

Ageism and well-being

A global study by WHO found that ageism is also closely associated with physical and mental health. Reduced longevity, earlier death, reduced recovery time from illness and disabilities, as well as the adoption of risky health behaviours such as unhealthy diets are the more common impacts. It also has implications on mental health — early onset of depression, anxiety, feelings of isolation as well as loneliness.

"An important point to consider is that age is correlated to the biological processes. But is also socially shaped," says Reji. "For example, an older person with a disability is treated with warmth and care, whereas a younger person does not receive the same respect. The IT industry may prefer youth in comparison to the manufacturing industry, who may prefer older more experienced people," he adds.

“The cost and time it takes to opt for protection are often deemed too high, disruptive or damaging to one’s reputation as an amiable professional, impacting future employability. This results in diplomatic exits becoming the first resort rather than the last,” says Aishvarya.

In a nutshell, it is the discriminatory behaviours that we need to pay attention to, irrespective of the age of the person. “Good HR practices uphold dignity as a core value, understanding the impact of high attrition rates on long-term success,” adds Aishvarya.

Countering ageism

Challenging prejudices and ensuring meritocracy in hiring and promotions is a good starting point. “A deserving young candidate may get higher-order roles very early in life and certain role-holders may receive an extension beyond the stipulated retirement age or get into a different engagement model. Such organisations operate on the principle of meritocracy and mutually beneficial opportunities. They benefit from maximising the potential of their talent pools by not getting restricted by the biases around age,” says Ashutosh Telang.

Intergenerational contact: Workshops and activities for different generations to interact and share with each other are effective strategies. “We need forums where youth and older generations can talk of their struggles, goals and dreams. If we miss sharing of views, there is potential that a disconnect may be created,” says Lynda White.

Inclusive leadership: Lynda continues, “Leadership behaviours sought out today are curiosity, humility, ability to listen, willingness to admit mistakes and open to new ideas and ways of doing things, and continuous learning. These behaviours are a proactive way to tackle ageism. We should adopt them.”

Other strategies include a proactive hiring strategy that includes a spectrum of ages, sensitisation sessions, instituting employee assistance programmes as well as wellness programmes to promote better emotional and mental health.

(The author is a diversity, equity and inclusion expert)

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Published 11 July 2022, 19:18 IST

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