Old age shouldn't be an excuse for overlooking qualification in public service

Wednesday March 18 2020

There is an urgent need for Kenyans to understand that ageism is a form of discrimination. Authorities applying it selectively and at their own convenience will not serve our nation or our needs.

Public debate on any official appointments seems to end up being a conversation centred on age. Yet what the country requires are people with skills, abilities and competencies to serve the nation.

Experience in public service should be an added advantage, and age should be the least of considerations. Kenyans should only disqualify a fellow Kenyan from holding public office if the person does not add any value to the nation.

The public seems to feel most slighted by the age of appointees. Never mind that when they are given the opportunity to elect leaders, the end product is many times worse than a bunch of dignified ''old men and women''.

If Kenyans were to be given the opportunity to recall the leaders they elected about a year ago, it might be that age would be the least of their concerns.


The appointments that have attracted great public criticism include those of Francis Muthaura, former head of public service, to the Kenya Revenue Authority Board, David Musila, former Kitui senator, as the chairperson of the Board of Directors of the National Museums of Kenya, and Beth Mugo, the former member of Parliament for Dagoretti constituency, as a nominated.

But these and any other Kenyans should not be discriminated against because of their age.

According to the World Health Organization, ageism is the most ''normalised'' form of social discrimination, even if it is not as greatly encountered as sexism and racism. But then it is also probably less documented than other forms of social prejudice and injustice.


It leads to marginalisation of elders, which creates isolation that is not good for their health and well-being. When disparaging public appointments, therefore, use of discriminatory arguments should be avoided.

Robert Neil Butler, who defined ageism, argued that it has three interlinked elements: prejudice towards older people, the aging process and old age. As such ageism is one of those prejudices that affect the self, consciously or unconsciously.

It is rare that people want to die young, and it is therefore very ironic when they have negative attitudes towards the elderly, the very thing that they desire to be.

According to psychologists, age-based discrimination makes many people feel dejected and ineffective. This is usually after the age of sixty, generally retirement age, because of the perception that they no longer have much to contribute to society and even family.

This is of course in contradiction to African culture, in which age was assumed to bring on useful wisdom for service to society.


Psychologists further argue that each person has three ''ages''.

Chronological age is determined by one's date of birth, and there is not much one can do to change it. But as the saying goes, age is nothing but a number.

Biological age is determined by one's lifestyle, which affects or influences their health. One, for example, can be thirty-five but with a ninety-year-old heart that is burdened by accumulation of fats, brought about by poor diet and lack of exercise, or a liver that is ''two hundred years old'', ravaged by the effects of alcohol abuse.

The third age is psychological, which is how an individual feels and thinks about their increasing age and, more importantly, the aging process. To paraphrase Henry Ford, if you think you are old or think you are young, you are right!

On the flip side, when Hon Kibwana does a sterling job for his county, Kenyans are quick to embrace his good works and his age. On the same level, youth is not a qualification for appointment, and though there are many qualified young Kenyans who can hold government positions, arguing that they should be given jobs just because they are youths does not meet the threshold for public appointments either.

Ageism in Kenya does not just rear its head in discussions on public appointments. It is practised in the workplace in subtle ways such as bypassing people for promotion or training because of their age.

An extreme form is getting an offer for the so-called ''handshake'' as an incentive to retire as soon as one approaches the age of fifty.

It is also reflected in the manner of speech when one hears phrases such as ''they look good for their age'' or ''Uzee nayo''. This line of casual talk is not only lacking in propriety, but it is also the practice of ageism.
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