My sister Vidya and I have a favourite pastime. To compare ourselves with our mother – what she, her life was like -- when she was as old as we are right now. And we realise how old we thought she was, back then!
By the time Ma was 43, she had become a mother-in-law, and in the next two years, a grandmother. A happy one at that, easing into the role smoothly, looking after the grandchildren while her daughters built their careers; bending her daily routine to help them juggle their jobs, travel, inlaws-relationships and parenthood.
Meanwhile, many of us in our 40s are busy, as I see, taking a break from our careers, yet feeling we are at the crossroads; counting our greys that have grown every day during the lockdown, pretending that we are cool with the new crown on our heads, but can’t wait to go back to Coloured Hair once the salons are safe to go back to. We are busy helping people around with time, ideas or money, but we also have a bugbear that our mothers didn’t have -- to keep up with social media and our social circles, a bugbear that won’t be crushed even by quarantine.
In many ways, Covid-19 has completely altered the planetary position of the middle-agers. In the past five to 10 years, the 40s, even 50s, were the toast of the advertising world, the temple at which FMCG, food, fitness and the fashion industry placed their choicest offerings. New-age jobs meant you could buy your own (first) house and car right in the 20s, but it is the ‘settled’ 40s that attracted the media-spenders more. The age at which a person has loose change to spare even after EMIs; the age in which the urge to spend on one’s own wellness has well emerged.
And so, we were wooed with travel options to ‘Fit at 40’ workout themes and apps – the world truly belonged to the middlers. Come Covid era, that income and thereby that indulgence is under threat. Employment and opportunities are getting scarce; those who are bang in between being ‘young’ and being ‘senior citizen’ are finding themselves on the chopping block. Younger ‘resources’ cost less and are also seen as better adapters to new technologies, so organisations think it makes better economics to let go of the rest.
This is paradoxical to the fact that the onset of the 40s is when people grow deeper into their career and, perhaps, even get better at it. Reporters, for instance, are likely to do the most legwork and travel in their 20s and 30s, but it is age and experience that earn the title ‘seasoned’. With years on the field, come perspectives (besides bias and dogmatism!).
A doctor couple that I know from the famed Christian Medical College, Vellore, who spent their early years serving in rural Tamil Nadu, say it is only now, after three decades, that they feel they are better practitioners. “Often, I can just see a patient walking in and figure out what could be wrong.” Just that they have just now ‘retired’.
The ‘peak’ age of one’s best work is strikingly different for different professions. A gymnast could peak in her teens, a cricketer or footballer in the 20s (though outliers like a Dhoni or Roger Federer can dominate the sport way past the average age of prime).
A techie may begin to plateau in the 40s, while in the judiciary, the 50s is just the warm-up age! The rule-bender is politics -- where being young can work against you. The late Madhavrao Scindia famously said how he was already a grandfather, but simply not old enough to be considered for the Congress party’s top post.
Where does this leave the middlers? Not in a very well-equipped place to cope.
The Network of Women in Media, a national collective of women from print broadcast and digital media, recently formed a solidarity group for those who had lost or were in danger of losing jobs. Raksha Kumar, an independent journalist herself, was one of those who put out her phone number, saying her first thought was “to only offer solidarity”. She was flooded with calls that came right through the week, from both men and women who said they had told their potential employers they are willing to take up a lower position with lesser pay, but weren’t still getting new jobs.
I asked Raksha if she saw any recurring theme in the calls, and what her takeaway message was. The need for diversity in skillsets, she said. People who had spent a decade or more in their field found it harder to find placements.
Is being a generalist better than being a specialist? Will being versatile score over being single-focused?
For now, it is clear that reskilling or upskilling is the way to go. Or the other trending word: Pivot. Which means you reimagine same old you in new ways, doing new things, or the same things differently.
(Vasanthi Hariprakash can chat with a stone and get a story out of it.)