March 29, 2020
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On The Wrong Side Of 40

Now there's one more reason to add to mid-life blues—a depressed market devouring job opportunities for 40-plus execs

On The Wrong Side Of 40
Atul Loke
On The Wrong Side Of 40
  • Rudrapratap Basumitray, marketing communications head with a middle-rung software solutions firm, was handed the pink slip four months ago. He was told the company was downsizing because of poor business prospects in India. Till date, 42-year-old Basumitray has been unable to get another job. After the first month, he felt his Rs 80,000 plus monthly pay packet was working against him. So he called up his headhunters and told them he was willing to take a salary cut. But their curt response was: "It's not your salary but your age that's on the wrong side."

  • Last July, Anandamoy Karmanjee, a 47-year-old business journalist and resident editor in a north Indian town for a leading national daily, decided to return to Delhi for personal reasons. His firm was unwilling to relocate him, so he quit. And for six months, searched in vain for a job in Delhi. Finally, he settled for a PR assignment with a small agency. This is what the management in his earlier job told him: "Look at our business editor in Delhi. He's not even 30. Young talent's serving the same purpose as experience. So why hire seniors?"

  • Thirteen months ago, seniors took Suprabuddha Singh, Delhi head of a leading ad agency, to task for what they called failing to garner more business. Singh, with more than 16 years of experience in running agencies, had a serious showdown and called it splits. He, along with two of his associates, formed a brand tracking firm and looked for business. It has been nearly a year and the firm is floundering. Singh's efforts to pick up another job have—till date—met with a strict no no. Why? Almost all agencies he tried sent him a terse message: "Your age is wrong and clients today are not looking for veterans to understand the market."

Call it a natural market phenomenon in depressing times. Or the fallout of the globalisation process. Or both. A new trend slowly yet steadily rattling what many construed even early last year as the Great Indian Job Dream into a nightmare. This, in turn, is forcing corporates to radically alter and reassess their human resource (HR) strategies. And the impact on careers is huge. Executives across all industries are trying to hang on to their current assignments because of dwindling options. The new corporate mantras of downsizing and mergers and acquisitions (M&A) to achieve competitiveness is rendering thousands of white-collar workers redundant. And when the slashmeisters strike, middle management is often the easiest cuts to justify. And middle management teems with 38-45-year-olds, who, once they lose their jobs, just simply vanish off the radar screens of all recruiters.

In the pyramid structure of any company's HR strategy, the 38-45-year-old segment seems most crucial. It's almost a make-or-break situation at that stage of the career. "It's the segment where you need to make it big. Make it right at the top. Or just remain there till you're lucky to find an alternative," says Sanjiv Sachar of the Zurich-headquartered Egon Zehnder International, specialising in recruiting top management. "I may not agree with this notion of '40 plus and nowhere to go' but would modify it by saying that if you're 40 plus, the aim should be for the top slot, nothing less."

The top slot indeed. Recent surveys on the domestic job market by firms like ORG-Marg, Taylor Nelson-Sofres Mode and IMRB reflect a total lull. In fact, in the last two years, only 14 Indian companies have looked for recruitments in all categories, including middle-rung options. As for the rest, the biggest share has been either junior or top slots, very little in the middle rungs of the ladder.

Second, another distressing aspect is the limited areas of growth. According to placement agencies, the current call of the hour is for a handful of sectors like telecom, banking, insurance, backroom processing (the offshore route) and, till late last year, retailing.All these are in the services sector where the general tendency is to avoid the 38-45-year group and look for youngsters. Indeed, it's now quite common for recruitment ads to carry a caveat saying, "Those above 40 need not apply."

Third, and the most worrying for the 40-plus executive, is that at his age, his most valuable asset is his experience, and there seem few takers for that. With FDI slowing down considerably in the last two years and not many MNCs setting up shop in the subcontinent, the pressure has been mounting in the job market like never before. And even if an MNC comes in, it usually hires a CEO to lead the operations and young people to execute. There is scarce scope for the man with 18 years of hands-on experience but still far from the board of directors level.

And finally, whatever little opportunities are opening up are in mini metros, where there aren't many middle-rung assignments and even if there were, very few would actually be keen to shift. At the 38-45 stage, several personal-life issues act as serious hurdles to changing cities. The children are well-settled in their schools; there could be problems about the wife getting another job; or the matter of aged parents.

"Our editorial matter for weekly job supplements has dwindled radically. We also have repeats (career placement ads which have appeared in other periodicals) which reflects the paucity of opportunities," says a brand manager for The Times of India.

The situation is indeed grim. "The scenario of yesteryears where many were in the mould of rising up the ranks is fading fast. Youngsters are well-trained today and have visions high up the rank," says Rachna Arora of CRV Consultants, the country's largest recruiting company for IT-based firms. "Diversity," adds she, "is now the name of the game. You have someone from Hindustan Lever joining Pepsi and then joining the TOI as executive director. Besides, salary cuts and repositioning are relatively easy for the 25-38-year-olds, not thereafter. The markets just aren't growing."

Changing professions midway—once unthinkable—was definitely a norm in the mid and late '90s but anyone contemplating it now would be insane. "Supply's overtaken demand like never before. And today, you just do not have any options. Both Indian and multinational companies are looking for people whose learning curve would be minimal. There are middle-level openings but these are so little in number that we do not talk about it," says Uday Chawla of multinational senior-level recruiting agency Hedricks & Struggle.

Says Anil Sachdeva of placement consultants Grow Talent: "Today, mid-level people are comfortable working in straitjacketed environments which normally cramp individual drive. It's because of lack of opportunities." Sachdeva feels that in the Indian market, both organisations and employees are trying hard to strike the right balance between expectations from each other. "And in places where it is not happening, there's a painful breaking point. The idea is to avoid building the reputation as a quickchange artist. Mid-career professionals should never quit a job till they have another. Or unless they're handed the pink slip."

So what's the option if you are in the 38-45 age group and haven't made it big? Either hang in there, looking for the right opportunity, even if it comes inordinately late. Or, join the breed of professionals who totally opt out of the job-hunting scene and set up their own shop. The only thing one should not lose is one's most crucial asset in a depressing job market: confidence. But then, the 43-year-old executive out of a job right now, could well retort: "It's very easy for people to say that. When you are out doing the rounds, and doing it for months, it's a quality very difficult to retain."

(Names have been changed to protect identities.)
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