Involuntary attrition, voluntary silence

In this particular aspect at least, the poor have run away with it.

Desire casts several shadows, desperation being one obvious one, concealment in the case of some, and shame in a few. But of course, not all desires are diabolical. Like mine, for a good new next job. No, this is not to seek sympathy or even anyone’s help. In fact, this is not about my employment status at all. It’s about the deafening silence and shame that prevails about joblessness amongst the so-called privileged.

In this particular aspect at least, the poor have run away with it.  While data available on the terrific ‘IndiaSpend’ website suggests that India’s unemployed are mostly the higher educated and the young, the poor of indeterminate age -- and presumably less educated -- seem to make for better stories: like class 10 dropout Ashok Kumar of Haryana’s Yamunanagar, 32-year-old class 2 dropout Balkara Singh of Bhatinda, and 35-year-old farmhand Kamal Gangrude of Pimplad, a village in Nashik district of Maharashtra.  

While it would be worse than churlish to suggest that these stories need not be told or are over-told, one good look at LinkedIn, and another slow swivel around you will tell you that several of your ‘connections’ also ought to be working hard someplace, instead of working hard to find creative euphemisms for their unemployment, or underemployment.  

Take, for instance, two recent newsmakers from within the news-making business, the controversial redundancy of 200 staffers of Tiranga TV and the downing of shutters on ‘The Afternoon Despatch & Courier’, and lest they be forgotten, scores more before them; some culled en masse, some in dribs and drabs. Most of these staffers are PLUs -- People Like Us. Not people like Ashok Kumar, Balkara Singh and Kamal Gangrude, but mortgage-paying, school fee-fulfilling, car-owning, holiday-taking -- yes, that too -- “ordinary” folk, many of who are now being hit by the triple whammy of a depressed demand, excess supply, and that other thing we don’t speak about -- ageism. The ageism that allows ‘buyers’ to get two, three, four youthful ones for the price of one of us. But that is a separate conversation, and one that Arthur C Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, has written a long and ruminative essay about for the ‘Atlantic’, titled ominously and accurately, “Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think.”

And while these instances are all from a sector that has several other problems plaguing it, politics being the primary one, the elves of the epitome of exuberant insincerity, Corporate India, are affected, if not equally but unequivocally. Because I am not a qualified economist, I make this statement inspite of, or maybe because of, data to the contrary. But then, data tells many truths, but many lies, too, about real lives.   

It is my contention that neither the news nor the data captured the story of a woman entrepreneur, with multiple other sources of income, who, one fine day, shut down a home kitchen-based skincare products business because one fine evening, the government shut down her and her customers’ access to cash, and therefore collapsed the cash-on-delivery model her enterprise relied on. Neither the news nor the data captured the devastation in a Facebook post I chanced upon of a screengrab of a TV anchor’s final telecast for her now-defunct channel. Neither the news nor the data can capture a bright young well-credentialed woman’s LinkedIn message to me “making a humble attempt to reach out” to give her availability an airing. For seasoned professionals, one of the realities of job-hunting at a time as fraught as this is that the ‘network’ is not just incestuous but also nervous, and therefore null help.

Who doesn’t know someone? And who isn’t that next one?

In the backdrop of all this is work culture, the warm, welcoming, and wise ‘talk’ versus the rather brusque, blunt-headed, and blase ‘walk’. Just like her political peer, the average Indian corporate leader remains below average in her ability to communicate bad news or even to acknowledge with responsibility, sensitivity and sincerity this now-expanding elephant in the room. The voluntary silence around the beginning of above-normal involuntary attrition can create behaviours that shape not just companies and industries, but entire economies, countries, and most importantly, societies. Regrettably, having chosen to transplant the American workplace culture in the Indian enterprise, we have long lost the opportunity to create something all our own, when it was most needed and would have been most appreciated. But it is in times like these, when headcount losses are also a form of profit, that employers can be more experimental, more imaginative, and set standards for civility.

Wannabe $5 trillion economies will find it useful to start to confront with more candour the reality of the current environment of redundancy at the top of the pyramid, in one of any government’s most loyal vote banks, and give this shame some name.

In the time of ‘sab ka saath, sab ka vikas’, every Vikas, and well, Vaishali, must matter.

(The writer is a communications and policy professional)

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