Wednesday, November 04, 2015

On Age, Generations and Feeling Young

Being on the start-up scene in my mid-forties, I am right in the middle of the discussion about age and generations. In summary, the point most investors make is that one needs to be twenty-something to have a realistic chance of founding a billion-dollar business, an assertion that, unlike many other assumptions of the investment community, can be empirically proved. Of course, I, and people like me, can only feel bad about this - with little chance of becoming billionaires and no chance of becoming twenty-something - and be compelled to build counter-arguments, such as older entrepreneurs are better at building businesses in sectors like Education. However, whatever one may try, the common-sense logic of younger people having more energy and less commitments are hard to beat, and indeed, for most of us, pointless to contend against.

However, this does not stop me from musing about age and generations. I am from that generation which fell right in the middle of the switching of social attitudes. When we hit the twenties in late Eighties or early Nineties, being older was so desirable. By the time we were older, being young was the in-thing. So, in a way, I have rallied against stereotyping by age all my life, and had the unique opportunity of arguing on the losing side regardless of my age. And, from that angle, that one can not be a successful entrepreneur because of age sounds to me very familiar, just as I was told not to do certain things, including seeing the girl next door (who I would eventually marry) because we both were too young.

And, by the same token, I indeed defy the label of being Generation X. Part of the rationale is that, being born in India, I belonged to what is now becoming the baby-boomer equivalent in that country. But the more salient point is that nothing special happened on 1st January 1985, or for that matter, on 1st January 2000 (which was, for us, remarkable because nothing happened), to mark out an entirely new species that came after it. The only thing to concede perhaps is that our attitude towards finance and money and consumption changed at some point in between. But, that makes the conversation about twenty-something billionaires more about the nature of the billions (mostly backed by private finance) than about their age. Technology has its role too, though I am equally skeptical about labeling the digital natives and immigrants (see my post on Digital Refugees).

In summary, I am making a case against ageism and stereotypes of all kinds. My argument is that there is no space for this in a society of individuals, which, at least in rhetoric, we want to define ourselves by merit and effort. My world of the suburban India in the Eighties was defined by social norms, where I was not me but someone defined by my family, place and linkages. I found that oppressive, and rebelled in my own small way, marrying for love, not following the usual career paths and eventually, leaving the country. However, the world I came to, with its obsession with young-ness, reflected not just in the rhetoric around start-ups but also in the rush of older people to sound and behave young, is no less inconsistent with the idea of being oneself. I endeavoured to stay outside this too - by rediscovering my love for reading (and writing long blog posts), alongside activities reserved for younger people, such as going back to school, starting a business, traveling around the world and indulging in transient relationships. 

In short, it was not about acting my age, or desiring another, but just being myself. This is why living outside the labels and expectations are so important. This stance has indeed put me into constant arguments with the Millennial generation, from India included, who would rather see themselves as a homogeneous, global generation, somewhat specially endowed, perhaps luckily so. But these arguments usually gave way to most enduring friendships, as every individual discovers their own struggle with stereotypes of one kind or another. Someone told me that being young is being free, but one is indeed not free while trying to conform to role expectations - and therefore, being young is about rebelling all the time. Exactly my point, I wrote back to her, though being young - or for that matter, old - is not the point of living. I did meet the role expectation - like an old person, I can not let go of my central obsession, defying the stereotypes - even when I am conspiring for a rebellion.

 






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