Ageism – another side of the ugly face of discrimination 25

I had a rather sad lunch with a ex-employee and now good friend of mine. She called to talk to me about the fact that she has struggled to find work for over two years. She is highly intelligent, educated, talented and on the right side of the affirmative action spectrum. However, she does not even get to first interview stage. You see, she carries a terrible burden – she has passed her sell-by date, having just turned 50.

Unfortunately, she is not the only person I know in a similar predicament. Many of my colleagues have – for whatever reason – found themselves back in the job market after the age of 40. Most can recount experiences that left them despondant about the possibility of ever being employed again. A friend of mine called a recritment agency (quite well known) to apply for an advertised position. He was told that the consultants would be with him shortly. The well trained receptionist then asked him for a few biographical details. When she got to “date of birth”, he naively answered that he was born in 1960 (or thereabouts) – making him just over 50. The young lady only hesitated slightly before suddenly remembering that the consultant was out and that all the other were busy. She promised that someone would call back shortly. Well – do you think that ever happened? I know many others who were told in less subtle ways that they were too old.

What saddens me is that these are people I know who have a great deal to offer the corporate word. They are educated, experienced and possess a depth of knowledge and skill that they have built up over 20 – 25 years in the business world. We seem so concerned about developing skills (and rightly so) that we ignore the wealth of skill and ability that could be utilised to grow and nurture the next generation.

Other countries – the US for example – have stricter rules regarding ageism. Perhaps it is time we addressed the issue more aggressively in South Africa. After all, people over 40 or 50 are hardly brain dead and suddenly lazy or incompetent. Age is a number – not a definiton of energy or ability.

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25 thoughts on “Ageism – another side of the ugly face of discrimination

  • Themba Peter Mpofu

    I have stated over and over on my website that the skills shortage we seem to be having in this country is a figment of our collective imagination considering the amount of experience that is available but gets excluded due to age. It looks like many employers are looking for ‘beauty queen’ types of people to make their companies look good. Makes no business sense to me. Do employment agencies act as gatekeepers for this to be perpetuated?

  • Themba Peter Mpofu

    I have stated over and over on my website that the skills shortage we seem to be having in this country is a figment of our collective imagination considering the amount of experience that is available but gets excluded due to age. It looks like many employers are looking for ‘beauty queen’ types of people to make their companies look good. Makes no business sense to me. Do employment agencies act as gatekeepers for this to be perpetuated?

  • Joe van Wyk

    And to add insult to injury: our revered Constitution so nobly states that there shall be no discrimination on the grounds of…age.

  • Francois Alberts

    I think it depends on the individual. My mother (an accountant) progressed to do computerised accountancy  at the age of 69 and was fully employed as an accountant at an auditor firm to the age of 83. Thereafter she did part time accountancy till she past away at 85.

    I will be 70 this year and am presently contracted to do Instrumentation training for learners at a major mining company. I also lecture part time at an FET college. Both are requesting even more of my time.

    One needs to get out and do something about life and not just look where blame can be placed. I know of many employed people that cannot wait to go on pension and “enjoy a relaxed stress free life” (sic).


  • Bulie Ndodana

    Thank you, Sylvia, for being willing to take the initiative of making the submission to the ‘powers’ of this land! I think this will be a step forward in the right direction. Perhaps the next thing is a discussion/suggestion of where this information should go to: e.g. Government:- The State Presidency and the Planning Commission; Basic and Higher Education [ it pains me that Basic Education can lay a professional off, only for Higher Education to see value and worth in the same person! do these departments even communicate? I wonder…]; Health; Finance; Agriculture; Justice and CD and others that have a workforce that is the ‘backbone’ of the country. Maybe one can look at other sectors and make further suggestions that will include parastatals and the corporate world. Surely there is someone who can help get us started on the initiative, I think.

  • Des Squire

    Following my retrenchment some years ago and bing over the age of 50 I found I was being turned down with excuses like, “your too experienced”, “worth a lot more”, “wont fit in with a younger group” and most hurtful as “your too old” – truth or fiction was my query.

    Is the problem not one created by the HR practitioners who are working on behalf of the companies they represent?

    Is it a political thing – I think not?


  • Bukiwe Mtoba

    This is a very important topic and I so wish our government can look at this issue very close and find a solution, we need such people with experience to mentor the youth in the workplace.

  • Sylvia F. Hammond

    Hi to all – thanks for great discussion.  I’m happy to submit any proposals you have to a relevant department.  I submitted our response to the DHET on the proposed Seta Regulations.  And of course the President is also accepting any comments on the State of the Nation before his speech.

  • Alan Hill Post author

    Thanks for all the great comments. I think a forum would be a constructive and very positive idea. I am not sure how we could go about it – but count me in.

  • Petrus Leonard

    What a pity that such a state of affairs exists in the country. Yet, it is true. An organization can barely get rid of you when you are over 50, yet the company blocks all the possible developmental avenues thereby effectively declaring you as a non value adding individual

  • Joe van Wyk

    Alan, you’ve opened up a topic that’s not only valid in this time and day in South Africa…it’s vital to the extreme. My story is the same as David Screen’s…I’m 62, tertiary, vocationally and empirically educated, and well-versed in literally every aspect of training, education and life skills. But since my retrenchment in November 2010 I’ve applied for well over 200 advertised positions in HR, but to no avail! And that’s in spite of me being a so-called PDI.

    I sincerely support the idea of a forum of “aged” experts: we still have so much to offer, especially in terms of knowledge and skills transfer, quality production capabilities, responsible attitudes towards work, and dependability, honesty and time management. A forum like that could start lobbying the powers that be to commence understanding this cardinal economic fact: the unemployed youth are actually unemployed because of their unemployability…and that the “old” ones can be of tangible, genuine assistance in this regard to teach and guide the young ones in practical ways in the world of work and production. 

  • David Screen

    Bulie i really like your idea of a forum and I for one would like to participate in something like that even if it’s by e-mail. Let’s see if there are other responses to the idea.

  • Bulie Ndodana

    I am of the opinion that is ‘counter-productive’ for our country and its young and challenging democracy to hold the view that the wise and the widely-experienced must ‘move over’. This country needs the older generation to  continue serving; maybe interested mature people can get together and talk about how they can still play a role in the workplace? a forum, maybe, where we can speak about this issue formally and get a message across to the powers that be.

  • Lalitha Shamien Rugnandan

    Yes I agree this is an important topic and certainly one that needs careful  consideration. Mentorships is greatly needed from persons that have a wealth of experience and wisdom of age. This however  is sadly overlooked in the race for wealth transference and wealth creation. The skills transferrance that this country so desperatly needs is being ignored.I understand that the youth need employment but in order to be an effective and productive workforce the value add that age brings is something that should be utilized.

  • Ian Webster

    I doubt that the political will exists in this country to fight this because of the huge unemploment rate among the youth. I suspect that “You’ve had your chance; move over and let a youngster have a turn” is the new mantra.

  • Ian Webster

    I have a relative who is 85, fully employed as a pharmacist in a state hospital–including late duty and call out.

    He keeps the pharmacy keys because he’s the only one they can trust to get to work early enough to open up.  But, no, managers are concerned about an elusive thing called “energy”.  “Old” people won’t be able to take us to “the next level”, wherever that might be.

  • David Screen

    A good article and an issue that has been uppermost in my mind for the last couple of years. I turn 60 in April. I am tertiary educated and have 35 years experience working in basically every sector in our economy (education 14 years; non-governmental sector 8 years; self-employed 6 years; corporate 6 years. I currently work in a factory!!! that probably makes me one of the most valuable employees that a South African company (or the State) can snap up and get me for next to nothing!! But they will take a youngster who can’t read or write…   

  • Tim Madgwick

    I was advised in May last year that I was to be relocated to Gauteng by my employer. For many reasons it would have been a financial disaster and I had decided to commute to KZN on weekends. I started looking for alternate employment in Durban & Pietermaritzburg. I applied for 93 positions, 5 acknowledged my applications I had two interviews from the applications. Recruitment companies in general were shocking with zero communication. I am a civil engineer, a professional HR Manager & a paramedic, I am 52 and my wife is 50. We soon relaised that she would not get employed in Gauteng and my salary would not meet expenditure. I am also a white male born in the UK. My employer realised my predicament & agreed that I stay in KZN, stand down as HR Manager & start consulting in HR & safety. Our one option was to emmigrate to the UK as there are still HR jobs available. It is sad that where I have chosen to work in the RSA and have done all the right things by building local capacity I was so easily discriminated against, starting your own business is not always an option if you are a white male.

  • Arrie Venter

    I have first hand knowlegde and experience with this situation!! Knowlegde can not be transfered if the people with the knowlegde are not in the job enviroment. Companies think it is easy to take out the “OLD” employees!!! But the production and knowlegde walks out of the door, but these people should also not sit back and do nothing…we have developed a company that doing well by just looking at the market and using our knowlegde. The DHET is also now looking at a process that the “Veterans” could be brought back to train and transfer knowlegde.  

  • Catherine Anne Robertson

    I really need to comment on this.  I passed my sell-by date recently, by reaching compulsory retirement age in the education sector.  Even though I was in the middle of really important projects, I was forced to retire at the end of July, and since no-one had at that stage been appointed to replace me, my poor employer had to pay me themselves and keep me on on a contract basis for a further three months (during which time I felt like a second fiddle or a third leg!!) until I refused to stay on any longer as it was emotionally too painful.  I was snapped up by a higher education institution (university) where age is just not an issue and ability and experience counts more.  So, with my wealth of expertise and knowledge, I have something of value to bring to them.


    In the UK, my daughter, an HR manager for a huge fashion chain, told me that there is no such thing as a compusory retirement age – an interview is held with the person who is “getting on a bit” and asked whether that person would like to continue working if they value the work that he or she does, and that’s it.  Should there be complaints that the incumbent is becoming a bit doddery and making silly mistakes (they only react on a complaint), then the person is evaluated and, depending on the outcome, a proposal made that is to the benefit of the person and the company.  They have to be very careful as the excuse of age would not hold up in a labour court.  The same applies to the States, but in Australia, the same situation exists as in the South African scenario you sketched.  People over the age of 40 are really struggling to find work as they are considered a poor investment, which, as both of us know, is absolute nonsense.  I have never lost my work ethic and have as much energy and commitment as I have ever had, despite my age – and I have so much experience to bring to the table.  Being 60 today, is very different to being 60 40 years ago and I really think that the powers-that-be should re-visit this whole thing about compulsory retirement.  It should be changed to “recommended retirement age” and if the person can prove that there is still life in the old dog yet (with testimonies from colleagues), surely the person can stay on if he or she wants to?  Who can afford to retire today anyway!  Now, we are left in the position of having to fall around finding something to do – and no-one will appoint us because we are “old”.  What absolute nonsense.  It is an insult and ageism must be one of worst forms of discrimination as there is not much one can do about it.  Thanks for posting it, Alan.  I have the article from Australia that I could post if anyone is interested in reading it.

  • Mohgamat Awaldien

    Hi Alan, I agree fully and it has been coming for a long time. We need to look into this and as you said agressively – there are so many unemployed and this makes the person become despondent and who know what happens after that.

    In SA we need those experiences and skills built up over the years and who did they get those from – the elders on the day!! I am very skeptical about the young executives in the corporate world as well in the goverment departments.

  • Christine Botha

    Hi Alan,


    Considering the statistics published over the past few weeks regarding the so-called skills shortage in SA, I am shocked and disappointed about the issue you are raising.  Over the weekend I heard about a similar case where a 47-year old qualified CA has been out of work for two years.  He applied for hundreds of positions, but agencies don’t even bother to acknowledge his application.  The alternative? create your own employment, become enterprising and start employing others – I am happy to report that a number of my clients are less discriminating and welcomes the input from ‘older’ people.  In fact, they comment that they would not have achieved the growth and success they have if it were not for the input from the  ‘older’ people.


    I agree with Christine Maritz – Government in particular can use these older employees in a mentoring capacity and you will see a marked improvement in service delivery.  If we could grow the pie there will be a slice for everyone.  Unfortunately, Bribary and Corruption both have healthy appetites and is eating away at this pie at a rapid rate.

  • Tass Schwab

    Thank you for opening this discussion… there are many complex issues. The population of our planet is getting older, more people over 65 are now retired than ever before. There was a time where the elders were respected and the wisdom valued, older worked with young to achieve a result. Perhaps we need to re think how we go about business. In an ideal world, each industry would have a council of experts to give advice…and introduce others into the working world. You could even call it mentoring. It does sadden me that years of experience simply “vanishes” and we forge forward without this… perhaps we would have more successes if we could tap into wisdom?

  • sharonsnell

    I agree with you Christine – experience does take time. A rolling stone gathers no moss and at the rate our young executives are rolling and changing jobs, an employer has a safer bet with an older employee.


    Anyway the SA Labour environment protects the aged worker from discrimination, so it is just a matter of employer sensitisation around this issue.