When 'uncle' and 'beti' work together: India Inc grapples with generation gap at the workplace
Corporate India has not been able to address generation gap at the workplace as well as western countries have
It was a minor scuffle over a seemingly silly reason. Earlier this month, a senior Air India pilot, who was younger in age, addressed his co-pilot as 'uncle' while asking him to take down some details just before the flight was to take off. Irritated at the allusion to his age by the younger commander, the elder co-pilot picked up an argument. There is more than one version of what ensued. While some say a physical fight took place, the spokesperson of the national carrier denied it.
This is a one-off case that got media attention. In corporate India, with an increasingly young workforce taking centre stage in most industry sectors and the entry level age for employees in New Age sectors coming down to as low as undergraduates in college in white collar jobs, Indian companies are grappling with the different needs and clashes that take place on account of a multi-generational workforce.
“Corporate India has not been able to address the generation gap at the workplace as well as western countries have”, says Swapnil Kamat, founder, CEO and chief trainer at Work Better, an executive education and training firm. It has been particularly difficult for Baby Boomers (born between 1950 and 1970) to accept a structure where they are made to report to Generation X (born between 1970-1990). Social structures in India often tend to dictate the relationship that is to be maintained at the workplace as well, adds Kamat.
These social structures sometimes blur in workplace conversations. “These can be innocuous as referring to senior employees as uncle or aunty, depending on their gender,” says Sachin Adhikari, a transformational training designer and Chief Mentor, Viztar International Pvt Ltd, a business consulting and transformation training organisation.
Or there can be phony concerns. “When a new computer program or code is introduced, often experienced employees are asked if they are 'alright' with doing something, with the implication being that because of their age, they might not be up to it. Sometimes they are made to feel redundant stating that their skills are no longer needed. This is especially true in the case of IT professionals,” Adhikari points out.
The rise of private sector
This generational shift in the workplace dynamics in India has been rapid and can be linked to the transition of the country from an agrarian economy to manufacturing and later services industry.
According to Tanmay Nayak, director of skill development at Tata Institute of Social Science, the corporates' dependence on the government for funds declined as privatisation gained momentum. Apart from this, the rise in entrepreneurship also helped change the common man's perception about the private sector.
"Earlier, people wanted government jobs as it provided security. Though there are still a significant number who would prefer to work in government, there are a large number who believe there is security in private organisations too. The rise of new sectors like services industry has opened doors to fresh graduates and undergraduates too. With a large supply pool of youngsters available in the country, funding from private and global funds, the workplace has changed in the Indian context," says Nayak.
The liberalisation angle
The presence of the youth workforce is noticeable in the new age industries like IT services which started in the late 1960s and strengthened in the 1970s. Interestingly, the composition of age groups in traditional manufacturing industries has more or less remained static.
India Inc is also embracing the new generation workforce with much enthusiasm. And not without reason. "The young ones are eager to learn and develop their skills, bring new ideas and initiatives to the table and grow in their careers," points out Pallavi Jha, chairperson and managing director, Dale Carnegie Training India.
Echoing this view is Sunil (name changed), a senior software professional working in Bangalore, who feels the energy of the new bunch stems from the fact that they have seen only the liberalised India.
"They are not too bothered about job security unlike the earlier generation of employees. They know if one job is lost, they have another," says he. This is mostly true with the IT sector. Their ambitious, fearless attitude is good for companies from a productivity point of view.
In some cases, the preference for the younger workforce verges on blatant partiality, as was the experience of 45-year-old Ravish Tewary (name changed). Tewary, who is a middle level senior employee working at a private firm for over a decade, says he was denied leave when his mother was ailing as the reason was not convincing enough for his boss.
“My boss was of the opinion that it wasn’t a convincing reason to take a 10-day break and asked me if I did not have someone to take care of her.” Yet, says Tewary when a younger colleague took repeated breaks of a day or two citing her child was unwell or the nanny had not turned up for work, leaves were granted to her. "I am cautious about asking for leaves citing reasons involving my parents. Instead I choose to say, I am unwell. No one can then force me to come to work," he says wryly.
Nurture seniors, promote freshers
Can companies ignore the senior, experienced hands? The fact is they cannot.
“Their years of experience and knowledge of their fields are invaluable to an organisation and retaining these professionals is just as important as hiring and developing the young, new talent,” Jha says.
Aspirations differ from person to person and it is about catering to that unique person’s needs rather than classifying individuals into Gen X or Gen Y. “The organisational processes should be built to help people to cope with the changing workforce as well as to integrate diverse employee profiles better,” says Ramanand Puttige, head - business fulfilment, HR & Talent Deployment, Cyient Ltd.
Many times, the employee is himself an issue. This is because often in India, people management is seen as career growth especially when employees are in their 40s, says Srinivas Ghanagam, head - HR of a German firm, Freudenberg India.
“We are trying to tell employees that you could be experts in your field but you can work with others and grow in this manner too," he says.
The middle way
One way to address the issue is to change the definition of seniority with regard to age. How old is old at the workplace?
“The 60-year-old is not really old. We have seen professionals working well even at 75 years,” says Ruchi Sinha, Assistant professor of Organizational Behaviour, Indian School of Business.
Sinha feels it is time that companies to design policies to improve engagement levels of older employees. “Their needs are different from younger employees. Organisations should engage with them on various levels to gauge job satisfaction, motivation, commitment, satisfaction, among others,” she says.
It sends out a wrong message when leaves are sanctioned for a certain category of employees and not others. The 40- and 50-year-olds are stuck between generations – have children who are no longer teenagers but need to be attended to and also have old parents to look after.
“If a company’s policy allows flexi timings, it should be applicable when an employee’s child is unwell and also for an employee who has to take care of an ailing parent,” suggests Sinha.
Some organisations cite lack of initiative to learn new computer or technical skills as a reason to expel or sidetrack an employee. Sinha says the question is: Does the mid-level employee really need to learn the latest computer program?
“It does not make any sense to put them through a C+++ program, for instance, when their skills can be used to manage work which they did without the aid of latest programs,” says Sinha.
She suggests that organisations could look at enabling such employees with managerial training, if they are found suitable, and engage them in participative management.
Engaging with seniors
There are various programmes that some organisations adopt to make employees feel involved and engaged at the workplace. One of the ways of doing it, suggests Anurag Gupta, CEO, Magna Infotech, is for companies to invest in shadow programmes where employees will work for projects or programs as a shadow resource for a time period. This gives them scope for practical learning on the ground.
“There could be training programmes where a mock environment is created so that employees gain practical experience. Colleges should also look at training modules where students are sent for a six months' internship in the last semester to intern with companies and learn practical coding and testing. The emphasis should be on contracting niche skills or super skills at any given point of time,” explains Gupta.
Some organisations prefer to engage with a senior experienced professional in case of vacancies not just because of their talent but also for the loyalty factor. “This is because the senior employees have given enough time to the company and the industry as a whole. It then becomes easier for managers and superiors to trust them for any work. The maturity and wisdom that comes with older workers is beneficial not just for their work but also to set an example to younger employees in the team,” says Adhikari.
Working in one department or repeatedly doing the same task makes it monotonous. Organisations could look at job rotations, for instance, to break the monotony and more importantly, utilise talent, says Ghanagam of Freudenberg.
“Give employees exposure to other departments and other office of the organisation. Talk with employees about their future growth prospects and get them to map their goals,” he says.
Retirement age is now just a statistical number. Talented, fit and hardworking employees can go on and on, says Adhikari.
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