Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya reflects on how the ever-growing cult of ageism robs society and its youth of memory and valuable experience. On the flipside, the dismissal of the youth as having nothing positive to contribute is not any better. Discrimination on the basis of any age is irrational, he shows.
According to a radio and TV advertisement for a financial services company, the first person to live up to 200 years of age has already been born.
The advert challenges the viewer to think about retirement and the other financial needs for which one would need to cater when reaching retirement age.
The advert does not name the person, whether a woman or a man nor does it say on what it bases the optimism for such extended life-expectancy. But, let us work with the assumption that they know what they are talking about.
Working from the premise of the factualness of the TV ad’s findings on age, we must deal with an attendant problem: ageism.
Sociologist Robert Butler coined this term in 1960 to describe the “process of systematic stereotyping of, and discrimination against, people because they are old”.
Pope Francis describes the treatment of the aged as part of the “throwaway culture”.
He says that, “[i]n the west, scholars present the current century as ‘the century of old age’”: there are fewer children and an increase in elderly people. This imbalance is a great challenge to contemporary society. And yet, a certain culture of profit insists on making the elderly appear to be a burden, an extra weight. They are not only unproductive; they are an encumbrance, and are to be discarded. But discarding them is sinful! We do not dare to say this openly, but it happens. There is something cowardly in this inurement to the throwaway culture. We want to remove our growing fear of weakness and vulnerability, but in this way we increase in the elderly the anguish of being inadequately supported and abandoned.”
In South Africa, the recent appointment of North West province premier (the equivalent of a state governor), Professor Job Mokgoro, highlighted an example of such ageist thinking.
Professor Mokgoro was born in 1948, making him 70 years old at the time of his appointment. The fact of his age got the social media networks buzzing. Why should a geriatric – as some dismissively referred to him – lead a young country?
To be fair to those who raise the average age argument, expert statisticians’ numbers back this point of departure.
According to Index Mundi, an agency that tracks worldwide population size changes based on the United Nations numbers, people aged 65 and older constituted just 5.68 percent of the population.
The largest category of persons was between the ages of 25 and 54 years, making up 41.78 percent of all South Africans.
Other age ranges with significant numbers were those between 0 and 14 years (28.27 percent) and 15 to 24 years (17.61 percent).
This argument, solid as it might be, would ignore the new premier’s record and dismiss him purely on the basis of his age.
It would fail to take into account the reasons that led to the appointment of a new premier; because the previous one, Supra Mahumapelo, who turned 50 on 6 June 2018, had caused the entire administration to collapse which forced the national government to intervene.
Under these circumstances, Professor Mokgoro’s experience, as the first Director-General (known as the permanent secretary in some countries) of the province, and his academic qualifications should have been considered.
Professor Mokgoro, until the time of his appointment, was responsible for the School of Governance in the North West Provincial Administration, and had an outstanding history of service in South Africa.
He was also Visiting Professor at Wits University’s Graduate School of Public and Development Management.
So even by the standards of the “throwaway culture”, it is hard to see what, other than his age, disqualified him to be in charge of a province.
As in any sphere of society, a youthful exuberance and the experience that comes with age make for a better outcome.
Pope Francis, again: “[d]ialogue between the young and old comes easily once youth make the effort of engaging their grandparents, or visit the elderly at their retirement homes. Once it starts, young people don’t want to leave. Because from the elderly there’s wisdom, a wisdom that reaches the heart of young ones and pushes them forth,” said the Pontiff when he was addressing some 3,000 members of the Brazilian-born movement Shalom.
Francis added: “[y]our grandparents have the wisdom, and furthermore, they have the need for you to knock on the door of their hearts to share their wisdom. That dialogue is a promise for the future, it’s what’s going to help us move forth.”
Ageist thinking, be it the dismissal of the aged or the young, is backward and most probably un-Christian.
The scriptures are replete with examples of events that defied what was expected for a person’s age. Abraham and Sarah had Isaac long past their “conceive-by” date.
After the 12-year-old Jesus went missing during a trip with his parents, from Jerusalem for the Passover Festival, and later found in the temple, St Luke says: “everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (cf. Lk 2:47).
David was 30 years old when he became King of Israel and reigned for four decades. (cf. 2 Samuel 5:4).
St Paul famously encouraged his young disciple Timothy to not allow himself to be made to feel inferior because of his age. “Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. (Timothy 4:12).
The jury is still out on whether the TV ad is correct. If it is, then we might as well prepare now for the day that those of Professor Mokgokong’s age are regarded as “youngsters”, learning the ropes from a 144-year-old mid-career professional.
But, regardless, of whether it is or not, deciding on a person’s capacity to effect positive change based purely on their age, should be considered as irrational as making the decision based only on their sex or skin colour. It is backward and embarrassing.