“Bete, tumhaare papa kya karte hai?” (Sonny, what does your father do [for a living]?)
As I began answering, a flustered Dr.Prabhakar was visible from the corner of my eye. This was at a buffet for speakers and guests at the Vibrant Gujarat summit (Gandhinagar) in Jan 2013, where I had discussed my experience in the development sector and commented on the state of youth empowerment in India (other speakers included Caroline Den Dulk–UNICEF India Chief of Advocacy, Suhas Gopinath, and Chetan Bhagat). I had just bumped into the good doctor, an eminent scientist who had helped me with a patent application a few years ago, when he introduced me to a certain corporate personality, who popped this question. I replied with a spiel about my parents being involved in a business venture, and then segued to my own work and experience.
Later, the doctor and I tried to figure out why my father’s profession was more important to establishing my identity than my own, and why just my father’s, but we couldn’t reach a conclusion, and drowned our doubts in tubs of basundi.
I am proud of my parents and what they’ve done (and continue to do) for me, but I was already 24 years of age, had not lived with them six years then, and had my own independent career, income and any other means needed to take care of myself. But twenty-four is just not mature enough for most Indians to consider someone capable of leading their own life; “In age we trust” could very well be our national motto. We know what’s best for you, and let us decide what you study, where you work, whom you marry (oh, the much-maligned arranged marriage), when you have children, and so on. You could be a scientist at NASA, but only once you touch 35 or 40 are you to be considered wise enough to make your own (and your children’s) decisions.
But I realise that blaming our families and the traditional set-up would be going for an easy target, and moreover, it hides the complete truth regarding our society’s attitudes. I was reminded of this a few days ago as a very senior colleague whom I hold in high regard started a discussion on Twitter about the difficult decision of choosing a candidate (or party) to vote into power. He tagged me, among others, to seek our opinion, and I replied with a comment. At this point, a blogger (or The Startup Guy) responded with a tweet implying that “kids” like me are not capable of commenting on such issues. When asked to clarify, he said that I should not “make frivolous staments.[sic] Shows your age.”
But why would I not want to show my age? Twenty-five is a beautiful number: A perfect square, a factor of 100, aesthetically pleasing in every way. More importantly, it’s a number that allows me to fight for my country, drink alcohol, get married, raise a family, exercise my right to vote, and to think about it, it even makes me eligible to contest for general elections and become a Member of Parliament. In fact, there already are a number of people across the world, in my age group or younger, serving as parliamentarians, ministers, journalists, policy analysts, entrepreneurs, writing books, becoming Nobel laureates, and winning Pulitzers and Oscars.
But apparently, anything I say on a public platform can be dismissed ad hominem, because I am young and thus frivolous.
Some other tweeters noticed, and replied and retweeted, but he just asked us kids to go back to watching TV. Since he’s The Startup Guy, a friend wondered if he had an age criteria for that as well, and was told that starting up is not the same as “trying to advice on national-level policy.” Like any good twitter conversation, personal attacks followed, and he later said that “Age doesn’t make an MP.” And then proceeded to delete his prior tweets (an action that is pointless if you understand how social media works).
Something like this is a fairly regular occurrence in work contexts, especially in large, bureaucratic organisations. When I had to coordinate with an Indian government agency for a few weeks on a certain project, my significant other suggested I grow facial stubble to avoid being patronised at work. And she was right; looking “beyond my years” and hiding my age otherwise has been a useful tactic.
Denouncing someone’s opinions because of how young they are remains an acceptable form of discrimination in our society. People under the age of 25 represent a demographic that contains half the people on this planet. With nearly 1.8 billion aged 10-25 today, we contain history’s largest generation of adolescents. But we can’t make any of our own decisions, or even contribute to the discourse. Politics and policies need to be left for grownups while we are excluded and asked to run along and play.
To be fair, I, and most others who responded to The Startup Guy, belong to a privileged class ourselves. No matter how bad things get for a guy in India, women always have it worse. An ex-colleague was once introduced to someone at a social sector conference as “the sweet little girl who works in <respective field>.” Young and compassionate as she is, she also happens to be the head honcho at one of the most prominent organisations in her field, and has well over a decade of experience!
Another female acquaintance, also an internationally renowned expert in her field, said that people began taking her seriously only when she started greying. I have known many young women who alter their appearance so as to age themselves slightly, in hopes of being valued at the workplace and being considered on equal footing with older/male colleagues.
But why does this matter? The Startup Guy was just being sarcastic, and it was all in good humour. Well, that’s how clichés and social biases work. I am sure the guy who called my colleague a “sweet little girl” thought he was being playful and hilarious, or maybe it was affection at play. How about introducing a (male) CEO of a large company, in his 30s, to a professional audience as a “charming little boy.” (Note-to-self: must try this at next conference)
It is assumed that to really know something, and to be eligible to have an opinion and decision-making power over anything that matters, one just has to be grey-haired and male. In times when it’s fashionable to call oneself a changemaker and society-changer and startup guru and what not, isn’t it stereotypes and biases like these that hold our society back and need to be changed? If you can’t deal with your pre-existing notions and prejudices on age and/or gender lines, isn’t that immature behaviour?
You are probably reading this on a website run by people in their 20s and 30s, from clicking a link on a social network maybe started by a teenager, and at a time when the Silicon Valley is trying to combat a different and equally senseless form of ageism. And yet here we are, happily admonishing our young adults and women as we spread the spirit of starting up and social enterprise.
Do your bit to change society, and next time, go for “Mere papa to theek hai uncle. Aapke papa kya karte hai?” (So what does your dad do for a living?)
Or, as my aforementioned colleague put it, “I’m neither sweet nor little, you old, patronising dinosaur.”
A version of this post appeared on my NewsYaps column. A concerned Mr. Vijay Anand, who has been quoted in the story, left a comment to say that he was not being ageist or patronising, a point he illustrated by saying “I do not think you know what you are talking about. But you would, if you would listen. Observe.” So noted, Mr.Anand.