06 Jul 2017 15:25 IST

Creating a Youngistan at the workplace

Are there any benefits to changing the demographics in an organisation?

A journalist recently asked me if “youthification” of workplaces was a big trend. My immediate answer was yes, it is happening, millennials are entering the workforce. She stopped me there. Youthification, according to her, was the forced alteration of demographics at work, when companies decide to skew the employee ratio towards younger people, hiring more of them and pushing away older/experienced people.

While this has not resulted in enhanced career opportunities for freshers, the career graph for experienced people in some industries is going through some tumultuous times.

Speaking to the journalist, I recalled a meeting with an IT customer of mine. Just as he was about to brief us on a new project manager, his boss called. Once he was done, he told us the position would be on hold, as the management felt they would replace the experienced manager role with a HIPO (High Potential, as they called their graduate hires), and someone from his team would double up for the additional role.

The organisation was trying to cut costs, rather than hire an apt replacement. He explained: “Yes, it’s a great way to save money in the short run, but it takes 18 months or so to get the freshers to warm up and be productive. Meanwhile, some of us who are experienced need to work 12 hours a day to ensure projects are running, not to mention the delay in delivery and the client escalations when we put too many inexperienced people on client projects.”

When you lose a client worth millions of dollars of revenue due to your focus on getting the young in, how do you explain the loss? We can possibly hold the guys who are managing the clients accountable, but what about the factors that lead to the loss?

Some correction in the IT industry’s middle layers is inevitable where managerial time had taken precedence over technical skills over the years. But the same cannot apply across industries and organisations. Would you go under the knife of a surgeon who has passed with admirable grades or of one who has practised surgery for 10 years? Skills evolve into competencies through practice.

In sports, ‘youth’ can be an asset but in professional life skills developed over years are hard to replace. Even with outstanding talent youth doesn’t guarantee success. I passed out of a college where many lecturers had just entered teaching. Some connected with us instantly but most made science difficult to learn as they were inexperienced.

Youthification is not openly discussed but evident through decisions in hiring and layoffs. In many industries, pure play managerial jobs are getting clubbed with something more specialised for organisations to be satisfied with ROI. Some of these are short-sighted and knee-jerk, but you can’t blame organisations who are under the pump from investors.

The major change in organisation thinking and related customer experience in the last few years is due to technology. One significant but subtle change that CEOs are seeking, not just in start-ups but also in large organisations, is a stronger infusion of younger talent, even in leadership roles. This comes from the inherent bias that younger talent brings more familiarity to technology, which can give firms a competitive edge. The second and debatable aspect is that a younger workforce brings new energy and adapts easier to the rapid and multiple changes organisations go through; it also implies older workers are likely to stall changes.

All of us remember Mark Zuckerberg as the boy who made Facebook an overnight phenomenon. But it is the seasoned Sheryl Sandberg who brought the necessary balance to sustain and grow the multi-billion brand. Back home we all know what youth did to some of the housing/e-commerce companies which are now in need of life support. Youth can come up with Uber-like breakthroughs, which are necessary, but only experience can allow scaling up. So, the next time you see some experienced blokes in your organisation, don’t see them as furniture, think of them as an anchor to take you forward.

(The author is a prolific commentator on workplace dynamics. He is now pursuing his entrepreneurial dreams in the talent solutions space. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.)

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