Michael Douglas’s movie “The Solitary Man” depicts a story of a high-profile businessman becoming a criminal. It is riches to rags story, where Ben, the character played by Douglas is reduced to asking his daughter home rent. The movie makes one contemplate – does age impact ethics? Watch these last scenes of the movie first.
The crucial point in the conversation is when Michael Douglas says – “No one noticed”. He changed from being a faithful husband to sleeping around with young women, because his wife didn’t notice. He shifted from being an honest businessman to a fraudster because no one noticed. The crux of crime – opportunity, reward and rationalization. When no one notices or stops you, it became easy to rationalize criminal behavior.
In another scene of the movie, he says to his friend Jimmy – “In the highest moments and lowest moments of life, you are all alone. On the cover of Forbes magazine, I am by myself. In business magazine cover with handcuffs, I am by myself.” As is the cliché it is lonely at the top. Does the isolation at senior level positions impact psychology and behavior?
Since very few juniors will confront a senior or CEO on unethical behavior, it becomes easier to rationalize. As seniors do not receive negative feedback they remain unaware of the impact of their behavior on juniors and the organization. Social intelligence antenna works on receiving direct and honest information. With diplomatic responses, some miss the signals.
One more critical comment that describes his psychology on ageing was – “I was becoming invisible. Thirty years ago the room changed when I entered. I was a lion.” With age no one noticed him and his ego couldn’t take it. He compensated it by chasing young women.
Douglas couldn’t transition from the sense of invincibility that comes with success and youth, to being just another mortal, whose significance diminished with age. Hence, he broke all social and ethical norms to delude himself into feeling powerful.
In all careers the change is significant. Before retirement, one is generally at the highest level of their career, and suddenly on retirement, the people whom one was working with don’t have time for the person. A person deals with loss of self-esteem, insecurities and feelings of vulnerability. Each retiring person treads this uncertain path; however huge the savings and retirement plans he/she has kept.
Moreover, statistical data shows that old people are subjected to extensive verbal and emotional abuse at home. A survey by Helpage India indicates Bangalore as the number one city in India for mistreating elders. Previously Bangalore was known as pensioners paradise, and now 44% elders say they face abuse at home. In upper strata of society sons mistreat, and in the lower-income group, daughter-in-laws abuse. India, a country where youngsters respected elders by touching their feet, is fast becoming a nation that abuses elders. Further, as India does not have a social security system, if elders do not have sufficient savings, they are financially dependent on the younger generation, mostly sons. As India has a huge young population, a second job after retirement is difficult. Hence, living separately is not an alternative available to many retired people.
The sense of financial insecurity increases propensity of fraud of employees near retirement age. Various surveys state that the frauds conducted by older and senior employees are much larger in value than junior employees. The focus on training senior employees on business ethics is low, as organizations assume that old hands are aware of the norms and culture. However, since outward behavior is normal, colleagues don’t realize when the person has snapped inside. Therefore, this group requires more focus than normally given.
Ideas for Action
1. Organizations can handhold older employees prepare transition plans for retirement. Coaching employees on developing second source of income through developing different talents and hobbies will benefit. An active alumni group for retired employees helps in keeping their social circle intact. If organization provides pension benefits, including medical insurance generates confidence.
2. Employees themselves may develop supplementary business ventures near retirement. For instance, civil engineers in India generally buy residential properties and farmlands. After retirement they venture into real estate and farming.
3. Relationships with family and friends matter. Irrespective of the amount of money available after retirement, without family support one leads an unhappy life. Hence, employees must keep up work-life balance and focus on relationships outside office.
4. Organizations need to train employees that frauds do not contribute positively to retirement funds. The probability of legal penalties and miserable old age are high. With rising inflation and government targeting black money, illicit money put away in lockers is not a viable option. To mitigate this risk give refresher business ethics courses to older employees annually.
5. Companies to detect fraud propensities must periodically conduct a background verification and credit check of old employees to confirm their financial position. For instance, in a few cases employees develop gambling, drugs or alcohol addictions. They conduct frauds to fund these addictions. A background verification discloses these deviations.
6. India socially has two challenges – lack of old age homes and a social stigma if any person seeks psychological help. Psychological abuse remains an unmentionable issue.Hence, abused elders don’t have any alternatives. They cannot seek outside medical or other help as they attempt to protect family reputation. Organizations in their corporate social responsibility programs can build awareness about these two aspects.
India’s transition from a developing country to global powerhouse has eroded Indian culture and social values. Adoption of western culture has benefited is some aspects. However, western societies challenges of lack of family support system are ignored. This has resulted in creating a number of social problems in Indian society. Balancing the advantages of western and Indian culture and addressing the negatives will benefit the society. Achieving economic growth at the expense of certain sections of society will harm the social fabric and destroy moral values. This old story says it all :
Devil appeared before a middle-aged man. The man was worried that his career wasn’t doing well and he won’t have any retirement funds. The devil said – “I will ensure that you and your future generations will never have any financial problems, if you give me your soul.” The man agreed. Devil continued – “And the souls of your children, their children and all future generations.” The man again agreed and asked – “What’s the catch?”