Some three decades ago, when I was still in my 30s, I issued a quit threat to my then-editor-in-chief at Nation Newspapers Ltd if he did not allow me to attend a conference in Europe on active ageing.
The retirement age in the civil service was 55. I was so curious to know what “active ageing” meant that a ‘No’ to my request was not on. I got permission to attend the conference.
I’ve learnt to appreciate that age is a moving target and, like wine, the older the better.
As I sat before the television last Wednesday morning watching Parliament vet Dr Margaret Nyang’ate Nyakang’o, the Controller of Budget-designate, I felt saddened and angry at the extent to which we have become an ageist society.
For those unfamiliar with the term ageism — and they must be legion, judging from the hostility with which President Uhuru Kenyatta’s appointments of older people have been met — the term refers to unfair treatment of people because they are old.
To be an ageist is to treat people unfairly because of a belief that they are less important than younger people.
I felt saddened that MPs should be harping on Dr Nyakang’o’s age as they vetted her suitability for the post and treat the high professional and academic credentials she brings to the office as a ‘by the way’.
As they dwelt on how she will be above the retirement age of 60 by the end of an eight-year tenure, it didn’t matter that Dr Nyakang’o holds a doctorate in business administration.
While agreeing that her work experience — lecturer at KCA University, management consultant and director of administration and finance at Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, among other senior roles — eminently qualified her for the job, they couldn’t just resist rubbing in the age factor.
I hold no brief for Dr Nyakang’o. I didn’t even know she existed until her nomination for the office for which she was successfully vetted.
However, I have issues with the palpable ageism being displayed in the society. This runs counter to Section 27(4) of the Constitution.
The section states: “The State shall not discriminate directly or indirectly against any person on any ground, including race, sex, pregnancy, marital status, health status, ethnic or social origin, colour, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, dress, language or birth.”
The bashing of older people, which has escalated in recent months with the President getting the flak for “ignoring” young people in appointments as he focused on the elderly, does not augur well for a society that proscribes unfairness.
Constitution apart, it is important to note that most appointments that have unleashed the worst of ageist diatribe relate to offices that are way above your average youth.
While the United Nations defines youth — who form upwards of 75 per cent of Kenya’s population — as persons aged 15 to 24, in Kenya, a youth is between 18 and 35.
Let’s face it: The reality of our situation is that a 35-year-old lacks the experience and skills to chair the board of a parastatal.
NOTHING IS CONSTANT
Most boards include, as members, principal secretaries from parent ministries, who will have risen through the ranks to qualify for their positions. Can you just imagine the board taking such a young person seriously?
Appointments should not be so much about age as about qualifications. In any case, most youth cannot match Dr Nyakang’o’s track record and solid credentials.
Finally, youth is a moving target. Today, we are young, tomorrow we’re old. How will the youth shouting the loudest against the elderly feel in the near future when they face the hostility they are unleashing on older people, whose only sin is being born before them?
Moreover, most of the jobs, and they are few, that older people have been appointed to are part-time and should not arouse envy in the energetic youth.
Let them build their CVs; all too soon, they will be holding those posts, and only then will they realise the hurt older people feel at being on the receiving end of ageist tirades.
Ms Kweyu, a senior citizen, is a consultant revise editor at the Daily Nation. [email protected]