Jun 30, 2008 - published work    No Comments

Where have all the grownups gone?

Something I wrote for Dawn, not only did they change my ‘for’ for ‘to’ which was incorrect, they also chopped the last four lines which made it look quite stupid. Here is the unedited version, go to the link if you want to see the edited and printed version.

Asif is 35 and he came back two years ago from US where he went as a teenager pursuing an undergrad degree. A couple of degrees, some work experience and a decade and half later, he came back and is now working for a cellular network company. The first thing he noticed about the work force in his office was absence of older workers. “I guess telecom was a newer industry for Pakistan but the average age of the staff was something like 27, that’s extremely young. There are times when it felt awkward to be one of the oldest guys at the workplace,” he added. The preference for hiring younger people is not just limited to Asif’s company, this trend, ageism and specifically jeunism is a form of discrimination and is on the rise these days. Jeunism is the tendency to prefer young people over older people. This includes political candidacies, commercial functions, and cultural settings where the supposed greater vitality and/or physical beauty of youth is considered more important and consequently more appreciated than the supposed greater intellectual rigor of adulthood.

In the global economy where companies and businesses have to work twice as fast as they previously did just to keep up with the ever changing trends and market demands, a new trend has emerged across the globe. The trend of hiring younger and more energetic people and of relinquishing the services of older employees has gained currency everywhere. Other parts of the world have developed legislation to combat ageism and employees can sue if they think they are fired on account of their age; unfortunately it is not even recognised as a form of discrimination in Pakistani constitution.

Iqbal Ahmed used to work for a local bank and took early retirement under the golden handshake scheme. When asked if he was forced to retire, he said that he was not directly forced but faced subtle pressure at work. “I was working as the joint director at the bank and had over 25 years of banking experience. They hired a 26 year old consultant who wanted me to report to him about everything – from the office stationary expenses to weekly performance report of my team. In addition, he insisted that I clock in and clock out at his desk. I decided to retire with dignity,” said Iqbal Ahmed. He now sells insurance and makes less money than his banking job but he seems satisfied. “They said that I am older and am not aggressive enough, I am in the direct sales for the first time in my life and am doing pretty well. There is satisfaction in doing something new and doing it well,” he added.

In the past couple of decades, new types services have come up which needed new sets of skills. Rezwana Khan, a human resource trainer, is of the opinion that companies may not necessarily seek to lay off older employees. It is just that newer services require newer set of skills and older workers either do not have them or are too set in their ways and are reluctant to learn them, Azhar Saeed, a pensioner believes otherwise. “Older employees cost more; they want pay increases, bonuses and medical benefits. They tend to get ill more often than the younger workers and as they have families who are covered by medical insurance, they cost the company a lot more than a younger single and healthy person. I remember every time I used to take my medical bills to the HR depart for reimbursement, they would mock me as if I want to fall ill and swindle them out of money, it was very demeaning,” he said. Fuelling the problem is the media’s portrayal of older adults. In television, older people are often portrayed as dependent, helpless, unproductive, unrelenting and demanding.

Lord Browne, former head of British Petroleum believes that older employees can be sources of wisdom and experience for the younger generations. Old people, as long as their mental faculties are cogent, are physically fit, have the right experience and skills, and should be put to good use. Lord Browne cited the example of Alan Greenspan who retired at the age of 80 years a short while ago.

If tribal chiefs, politicians, business people, academics, and writers of various genres can work beyond the retirement ages (whatever they may be), why can’t other professionals?

It is not just the older people who face discrimination. A lot of young people complain about it. Younger employees believe that they are considered disposable by employers. Asad, who started his career as a production assistant for a private television channel laments the fact that he gave three precious years of his life to them. “At times I have worked round the clock because there was no one else to do the job and I was eager to learn. I was over looked for promotion and when they refused to increase my salary, I left them. Because I started as an intern, they continued to treat me like one even after three years,” Asad grieved.

At times, employees under 30 are viewed as slackers who tend to waste time surfing the cyberspace at company time and tend to be less loyal to the company than older workers. Younger workers are more likely to job hop and often tend to put family as a top priority which may not work for them. This is a bigger problem for female employees. “I have forgotten the times I am asked if I am married at job interviews. When I tell them I am single, I see a visible change in the attitude. They tend to think that the minute I get married, I will leave and disappear to enjoy domestic bliss,” says Ayesha, a 27 years old banking executive.

It is not just the older of younger workers that face discrimination. Some profession like IT prefer younger professionals whereas experience is highly sought after in medical and legal professions. The problem is that the pie is shrinking at a fast rate and the people claiming a share of that pie are increasing. The economy is in doldrums and we are heading towards a recession. If strenuous measures are not taken, then this problem will escalate into a national catastrophe.

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