True character of good wine can take years even decades provided its stored in right conditions and time. Can we say the same thing about human beings? Should we judge someone’s intellect, competence or for that matter character by his age? I don’t think age matters unless you are calculating someone’s pension benefits or offering health insurance plans.
I was shocked to hear when a friend, Mr. G, told me about his recent experience of a phone interview for a senior level job at highly visible semi-Government organization in Pakistan. We have spent umpteen hours in coffee shops around town talking about this job opportunity ever since he saw it in of one of the Pakistani newspapers. Initially, he urged me to apply as he thought it would be an ideal job for someone like me. After his unsuccessful attempt to convince me, he asked me for advice on how should he pursue this process. Given my short stints at two semi-government organizations, he patiently listened to my false prophecies like a dedicated disciple who never challenges the authenticity of his Guru. Unsurprisingly, he was shortlisted for the interview and organization agreed to conduct a phone interview as Mr. G is presently finishing up his masters in the US.
He was interviewed this Friday morning by second-in-command (an accomplished and highly respected individual in his own right) and two other senior people from this organization. According to Mr. G, he was grilled by the interviewers and was asked everything and anything there was to be asked for the said job. Interviewers were so impressed by Mr. G’s responses that they discussed salary and start date with him. He informed them that he would accept whatever organization’s standard salary package for this position is and he can start as early as mid-May, mere two weeks after his graduation. And then came a question which ruined everything for everyone.
“By the way, how old are you?” asked one interviewer.
“Excuse me?” , Mr. G
“We would like to know how old are you?”, interviewer repeated.
Mr. G, “Umm…twenty six”
“What???? Do you know which job did you applied for? You are too young for this position”, Interviewer.
The interviewer had the guts to propose a junior position of project manager instead of Project Director Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Program to Mr. G. I am not sure if he did it out of guilt or magnanimity. How can interviewers miss a candidate’s age when he honestly reported in his application that he passed his FSc in 2000 and finished his Bachelors in 2004 from reputable institutes. Who should be held responsible for this Freudian slip?
Mr. G and I had discussed about the possible roadblocks at length during our winter vacations but little did we know that something as insignificant as age will ruin his chances. What bothered me and forced me to write my first blog entry is why should age matter in the 21st century. Don’t we all know that world was not changed by old people but by highly competent, visionary and passionate people regardless of their age, color, ethnicity or religious beliefs. How can age make someone competent, if he doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to learn. Haven’t we all heard about stories of young scholars, scientists, politicians and practitioners who either defied system or got their lucky break because some people put great trust in their abilities. Why do we Pakistanis have difficult time learning from others. How can interviewers not put faith in abilities of Mr. G, who demonstrated his competence by answering all their questions and his knowledge of the field.
According to Mr. G, he was rejected because it would have created age imbalance in the organization where all other Project Directors are 40+. I have never understood the logic behind age criteria and I doubt if I ever will. I don’t know if it is based on an empirical study or has its root in our colonial past. I think Punjabi saying “Jis kee lathi…uss kee bhains (whoever owns the stick, owns the cow” describes the situation perfectly when you consider the fact that we can have 19 year old college freshman be the co-chair of the largest political party but not a 26 year old project director who has all the qualities (or even more) needed for the said job.
Venture Capital and Entrepreneurship is such a hot field that fresh graduate get mouth watering offers as compared to what engineers or graduates from other disciplines get. I recently had an opportunity to hear David Swenson, the head of Yale Endowment, in my Venture Capital Private Equity class. He is considered the best fund manager in the world. He was hired 25 years ago at the age of 33 to manage Yale endowment worth 2 Billion Dollars at the time. In 25 years, he has managed to beat every other university endowment (including all famous Harvard Corporation) or investment fund to build a portfolio of 23 Billion dollars. I am sure Yale didn’t have shortage of experienced candidates for the job but then why did the advisory board full of highly successful Yale Alums from Financial sector chose David Swenson? More importantly, explaining his investment strategy he stressed the importance of putting faith in young and talented fund managers rather than big brand names. He said in good and bad market conditions, strong fundamentals based strategy is key to success. If translated to human beings, it would mean competence and not age. He continues to hire fresh graduates from Yale for his fund because he refuses to prefer experience over talent.
Back to Mr. G’s case. I doubt if his experience bodes well for any of us, who will soon be heading back to Pakistan after finishing our Masters on Fulbright. I know hundreds of Pakistanis who are actively looking for jobs outside Pakistan and US to short circuit the two-year home residency requirement set by Fulbright Commission. Due to this condition, we cannot get a job in the US and have only 30 days to leave US after graduation. None of us want to go to Pakistan, unless we are forced to and that will be the case if we fail to secure a job in Europe, Canada, Australia or Middle East before graduation. Mr. G is the only individual I know who always wanted to go back, honor his promise and come back for PhD on an F-1 visa and work in the US after finishing his PhD. The treatment meted out to this highly qualified individual is discriminatory to say the least. In my opinion, organizations should either provide an explanation for their age criteria or change their interview process to screen out young, inexperienced or incompetent individuals. It is unfair to put someone through the stress and anxiety of interview process to kill his hope based on an arbitrary rule of age. No wonder all fulbrighters want to work anywhere but Pakistan because they fear they may not get jobs they deserve or qualify for.
I hope Pakistanis can do away with such anachronistic rules. By this I am not suggesting that it will fix all our problems but it will be a small step in the right direction.