Musa Makhunga - Age Discrimination In SA INC
Musa Makhunga - Age Discrimination In SA INC

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Musa Makhunga - Age Discrimination In SA INC


Musa Makhunga, Managing Director - HR Matters (Pty) Ltd


When I was at the starting blocks of my career, I can recall instances when I was considered too young for certain roles, despite the skill sets I either had or would acquire within a reasonable period. I also know that once I was at managerial level, I was considered too old for future career growth opportunities. This attitude prevailed even when I believed: 'Eureka' I've finally arrived at the 'right' age.

Discriminating based on age seems to be normal across South Africa Inc., although this is against human rights. Such discrimination is prohibited in terms of our constitution, unless it can be proven that doing so is fair. We haven't seen legal challenges in this regard because age discrimination is so entrenched in our society that it is normalised.  Once people proclaim that you are either too young or too old for this or that, we simply submit and accept even the most untenable of situations, including decisions affecting our ability to continue earning at the level at which we are still capable.  

We fight racism, sexism, homophobia, and many other social constructs, with such intensity that even the slightest suspicion of any of these prejudices would turn the world upside down within a blink of an eye. On the other hand, ageism which happens daily, goes unchallenged and unnoticed.   Ashton Applewhite at TED 2017 says ageism is discrimination and stereotyping we experience anytime someone thinks we are too young or old for something, instead of finding out who we are and what we are capable of. She goes on to say this prejudice, like the others mentioned above, pits us against each other to maintain the status quo.    
Ageism in SA Inc. seems rife in that in most of our cultures, the pecking order is age based. What people are capable of becomes secondary to when someone was born, to the extent that younger siblings are not expected to make pronouncements on matters affecting families based on the accident of their birth. This attitude makes it difficult for most of us to be aware of ageism as we are ageist ourselves without realising it. Another reason why we are not able to see that discriminating against people based on age is wrong, is because we haven't seen legal challenges on this basis. At some point, both racism and sexism were not an issue, when people started seeing companies being legally challenged based on our laws, then society realised that discriminating on these bases was an injustice. While both racism and sexism have not been totally eradicated from our workplaces, much has been done in terms of policies and practices, so that these issues are avoided at all costs. However, age bias in decisions with huge personal and economic consequences continues without being seen as discrimination. For corporates, with established talent pool matrices, I would not be surprised if, where most people are slotted is informed largely by age.   

In many SA Inc. workplaces, once people are nearing their 50s, future job prospects become few and far between. Whereas people now live easily to their 80s and 90s, which makes longevity a reality, they get offered voluntary and early retirement packages at their prime, simply because they are considered old and labelled as less creative and innovative. It could be that in the past, life expectancy was so low that people had to retire between 55 and 65 years of age. These days with improved life styles, technology and medical advancement, people live longer. Perhaps it's time the government reviews retirement age laws. Having said that no law prescribes the age at which people should no longer be allowed to work, except for retirement fund rules which can be changed. 

Maurice Backman writing in the Motely Fool Newsletter maintains that according to research from Boston College (USA), unemployed workers aged 55 and up are less likely to find new jobs than unemployed younger workers. Following the 2008-2009 recession, the average length of unemployment for those 55 and up was 40.6 weeks, compared to just 31.6 weeks for younger job searchers. A 2012 study by the Urban Institute furthers this point: Despite their experience, workers in their 50s are 20% less likely to find new jobs than workers aged 25 to 34. While getting retrenched  is clearly never a good thing, it can be especially detrimental to older workers and their long-term financial health.

Backman further states that many workers who get laid off in their 50s (particularly their late 50s) fall into a trap of sorts -- they're not old enough or ready to retire, yet companies don't want to invest in them, for fear of seeing them leave after just a few years.  According to Boston College's research, many older workers point to age discrimination as a major deterrent to reemployment following reternchment. But since age discrimination is a tough thing to definitely prove, those who fall victim to it often have no choice but to pick up and move on in their search for employment. It is a matter of time that society will start waking up to this form of unenecessary discrimination especially as all of us are going to get old someday.

I can't help but notice when travelling abroad that on television, in airports, hotels, shops and in transport that older employees are a norm compared to our experience. In the context of SA Inc. the more people realise how prejudicial age based decisions are, the more this will be challenged. Corporates, should be making competence-based decisions on continued employment of individuals as opposed to basing this on age both on the grounds of our constitution and an individual-to-individual basis. Because people will always present unique capabilities, strengths and abilities treating them as individuals would benefit organisations and society more.  The blanket approach of letting people go on the basis of age robs our economy of experienced and capable people too readily. 

That age discrimination is difficult to prove does not make it less prejudicial and discriminatory.   

T:  083 251 6704

Musa Makhunga - Age Discrimination In SA INC

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