Among the ‘isms’ that afflict us, one that has been taken for granted is ageism. Ageism has been built into the structures of education and bureaucracy in India so much so that we often ignore it. When one calls it out, the first reaction is a puzzled look, and then—“But madam, this is how it is”, or, “Those are the rules”. The rules often decided based on age.
This is ageism.
When the Defence Research and Development Organisation chief was asked to move out, the reason reported was that he was too old. Whatever the real reasons were, it is interesting that age discrimination can be seen as a legitimate reason to decide on a person’s ability to perform a job. The simple assumption that an older person loses his/her capacity to perform is belied by evidence of many old people leading active, productive and intellectually useful lives. Longer lifespans are a function of better healthcare—the average age in India has gone up by eight years in the past decade.
The idea of having a retirement age makes less sense now than it did when the concept was mooted. Ageism is written into the rules for many posts, especially within the establishment. For example, India’s chief economic advisor cannot be over 60 years old. On the flip side, national research professors must be of a certain minimum age when appointed—no one below the age of 65 can be selected as a national research professor regardless of achievements or abilities. Neither job needs to be restricted by age, since age has little to do with the responsibilities and expectations.
Age decides things for us from very early on—it has been ruled so. We start school at a certain age. According to India’s Right to Education (RTE Act) students have to be placed in age-appropriate classes. This, despite the fact that we know that students have varied abilities—some are better at maths, others at languages. They learn at different speeds and may be at different learning levels. Forcing them all to conform to age-based levels is unkind and unwise.
As the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) reveals year after year, age and class cohort do not represent learning levels. Classes are marked by the textbooks handed to students, issued by age, not ability. A child who is eight years old, but with the reading ability of a five-year-old has to be pressured into leaping into age-appropriate curriculum. Forcing age to be a criterion for anything undermines its goals. We start ageism early, embed it and carry it through to the job market.
In a country where around half the population is under 25, it is easy to forget the rights of the old. The pressure of this demographic will be felt by the old, especially in jobs. One of the reasons for ageism now is that the bulge generation that is in its youth now needs to be accommodated in government and other jobs, and for this to happen, the old must give way to the new.
While the turn of the generations is not a bad thing in itself, it is sad when it happens on criteria other than merit. On the other hand, the market will soon discover them as a segment with access to savings and assets, and indeed a willingness to engage with their communities in ways that the typical EMI-burdened youth cannot. The grey rupee may yet mean something other than a shady transaction—it stands for the economic power that the elders represent.
Culturally too, in India, there are expectations of each age. An older person is expected to slow down, be more conservative in their ways, be more risk averse and even slower to learn. Much of this has changed, nay, is changing. In the workplace, there is the inevitable tussle between these assumptions (which may not prove true) and the claims of the younger cohort, who, by many accounts, are barely employable. The shortage of talent weighs against the risks of the over-experienced in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world.
There may be a few jobs in which age is an important criteria— for example, an older person may find it difficult to keep pace with intense physical activity. Then again, assess on performance, not on age. Age was merely a proxy, useful at a time when performance measurement was unwieldy. Or an administrative cop-out, or again a political tool. By all means, use age as a decision-making criterion if you are willing to admit to hiding behind it for other reasons. But to limit an individual’s access to opportunities due to said or unsaid norms about age is to impinge on their natural rights—and cannot be right. Meeta Sengupta is a writer and adviser on education. Views expressed by the author are personal.