Too old to serve: Who will speak on behalf of the aging?

By James kereri | Thursday, Jan 9th 2020 at 13:20
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The appointments by President Kenyatta in the last two or three years have received a backlash from the youthful citizens who feel that the aging population is taking jobs meant for them.

The appointments of Uncle Moody Awori, Francis Muthaura, among others, have had many Kenyan citizens openly protest these appointments forcing Mr. Kenyatta to come into public in their defense.

The recent appointment of former Nyeri member of parliament Mary Wambui being the latest case, which also prompted fellow politicians to join in the protest and even filing a case in court. There is also a pending bill in parliament that seeks a mandatory retirement age of 50 years. With all these events, the question then is, is it time that as a country, wehave a candid discussion on age discrimination?

Age discrimination is commonly known as ageism. Ageism is defined as a stereotypical and often negative bias describing age groups, and in particular older adults. Ageism in Kenya at the most has reached unprecedented levels, and we as a people have dared not to face this endemic. We are staring at a society of a growing young generation that no longer cares for their aging family members. I read an article recently that highlighted a case where young people who leave the village never to set foot again to see their aging parents. A growing case of unemployment among the Kenyan youths has not helped this situation either.

Ageist beliefs and attitudes towards aging may not in themselves be harmful. However, age discrimination chronologically and systematically groups and deny people of their rights, resources, and opportunities based on their age. Those who face ageism suffer the consequences ranging from physical and mental abuse, denigration, and state patronage to being vilified in the courts of public opinion. Ageism in Kenya has been nationalized among the unemployed youth, and like any other form of discrimination, it depends on the stereotypes key among them being discriminated against at the workplace. A survey among older adults has considered ageism as the most “cruelest” prejudice and rejection, and as such, its impact is very destructive.

In as much as a discussion on ageism is relatively new and hasn’t been a major concern in developing countries who are struggling to deal with high rates of youth unemployment, the history of ageism is seen as a political idea, and that can be solved politically. Very few developing countries, including Kenya, correctly or can estimate to a high degree of accuracy their populations’ birth dates. Just until recently that even parents kept records of their children’s birth dates. Many living people in the country only have rough ideas about their true ages. In some communities, aging people are still probably not valued or respected. Although they certainly were venerated in some communities, they are also very often seen as liabilities. In most societies, both children and young adults and older and elderly people have been thought of, respectively, as ascending and descending a hill or staircase, and as lacking in competence and strength compared with those in-between who are occupying the heights and in the prime of life.

The reasons why ageism and its effects have recently been highlighted, especially in developed countries like the USA is the effect and argument based on the experiences and skills that older people bring to the workplace. There is also the argument about improved quality of life that enables people to work effectively as they age. For these reasons and many others probably, ageism has become a component of political and public debate recently.

The rising levels of unemployment among younger and older people, the increasing proportions of dependent people to the employed, the rising costs of pensions, and of health care for the elderly are all obvious features of what is happening, but it is hard to distinguish between cause and effect. And as such, the argument about the aging taking jobs meant for younger people is not based on facts-at least for now.

Contemporary students of age and age discrimination in employment have increasingly argued that it is the most common type of such discrimination, as indeed it must be, as long as it is defined, in our view properly, as using someone’s age, whatever their age might be, against them. The very fact that it has been so convenient and so common has probably underpinned this confusion.

Specifically, the media, too, has been at the forefront in spreading and being pro ageism. The headlines that ran for days highlighting the appointments in Mr. Kenyatta’s government not only portrayed ageism as “normal” in our society but as a moral lesson to many of the desperate growing youth population. Whatever the reason might be for the growing age discrimination in Kenya, it offers us an opportunity as a country to re-examine our societal and political leanings based on the economic and social future, and the human life course. 

The writer is a construction engineering professor, USA.

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