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One workplace, but may be different worlds

The HR head was shocked. And the 22-year-old BPO staffer was agitated. It was the end of the month and the fresh recruit was upset with his first salary. "I don't want PF — I want cash in hand," he said. His take-home had been cut substantially due to PF deductions. "It is mandatory — think about social security," the HR head said. The reply aggravated him. "I am 22. Do I care about my retirement? Social security – what's that?" he retorted.

Two generations – different needs and very different demands. Raman Roy, 50, the BPO industry veteran, has lived through many such clashes in his professional life. This is just one of them in flashback. "Sometimes oldies would look at them and their preposterous demand – wide-eyed, mouth open," says Roy. The young BPO industry, so dependant on the upgrade-brigade, was perhaps the first to get bruised – and learn – to deal with these generational clashes.

  Now these flare-ups are fast spreading from the new economy services-led sector to the old-economy manufacturing firms as average age of staff dips across India Inc. "The generational differences are playing out far more sharply at work places," says HR consultancy firm Cerebrus Consultants' head, Anita Ramachandran.

Workplaces have always been multi-generational. And flashpoints have always existed. But what's new is that hyper economic growth, tech-revolution and globalisation — all of it compressed in a short span — have amplified the inter-generational differences in India.

From a closed economy, stifled by the Licence Raj and a socialist mindset, suddenly India and Indians today are in the middle of an outsourcing boom living a 24/7 life and chasing global dreams. As a result, workplace attitudes and norms have altered and mindsets have undergone a sea change overnight.

About 17 years back, when Prasenjit Bhattacharya, CEO, Great Places to Work India, was starting his career, there were a few 'unwritten rules at work' like submission to authority and position, denial of self-expression, especially for juniors. "A patriarchal societal mindset had been transported into the workplace," he says. With few women, and most of them in low-end jobs earlier, gender sensitivity was low. With a changing India Inc "rules at workplace soon started getting challenged," says Technopak Advisors chairman Arvind Singhal. As a result, old rules like respect for age, loyalty, shift duties were being questioned.

In a buoyant India, younger workers are a different breed — with an open mind and a global worldview. While on one hand their attitudes and aspirations are similar to their counterparts in countries like the US, the gap between them and the older generation here has widened, says Mercer (Asia) head Rajan Srikanth. Now, as many of these young ones join workforce in large numbers, generational clashes have soared. The decision makers in most companies are relatively older but a vast majority of the workers are younger. "And often there is a disconnect between what's being done and what's needed," says Ramachandran.

BCG India head Arun Maira recalls a recent experience. BCG India recently shifted its corporate office in Gurgaon and Maira was seeking feedback on how to make office better.

The email exchange veered around a library with two bookshelves and suggestions to make it better. "We need bean bags," said an email from a relatively younger executive. Another staff, relatively older, said they needed to have more books and shelves and make the library richer. "The difference in the responses made me curious — maybe the purpose of library may have evolved and we don't know," says Maira. Maybe people would rather read at their desk downloading stuff from the internet and library turning into a place to sit and reflect.

"This isn't about who is right and who is wrong — it's about accepting different world views," says Max Group director (human capital) P Dwarakanath. In many ways, its getting difficult for the older lot who are set in their ways and thinking. The change is so rapid that it is difficult for them to keep pace. The new-age gadgets, networking mores (orkut, facebook), communication tools (blogging) gives younger lot an edge in this generational clash. Not to forget that in many new-age businesses, the premium on experience has been sharply dented. "In the US, retooling, going back to college at 40 isn't unheard of unlike India, making it difficult for older execs," says social scientist Shiv Visvanathan. Expectedly, manufacturing firms with a skew towards older staff are finding it more difficult.