20 June 2017

Uganda: Lift Age Limit to Tap the Abundant Energy and Wisdom That Propel Societies Forward

Photo: Daily Monitor
Fatigued. A youth causal labourer takes a nap during digging trenches for internet cables (file photo).

Dear Tingasiga: Uganda's educated youth are restless. They want to inherit power and responsibility now. Many see anyone above 60 years of age (some say 50 years) to be too old and too tired to be entrusted with what they consider to be "their" future.

One understands their restlessness. In a society where being employed by the State and by the few companies in the land is considered a right of citizenship, the young university and college graduates are frustrated when they fail to get jobs. In a land where political power confers wealth and prestige on the individual and her relatives, there is an understandable impatience that underpins the claim that the youth want to set the agenda for a future that belongs to them, not to their elders.

One who suggests that an unemployed holder of a basic university degree should seek a manual labour job or return to the village and work the family land promptly earns a severe fatwa. To suggest that political power should be earned through fair competition is to invite a retort that the youth do not have the financial means to compete with their seniors.

To recommend apprenticeship and growth through the ranks of a political party and government is to invite accusations of obstructionist tendencies. Many have taken the urgency of now to mean dispensing with experience and on the job training. On the other hand, many elders do not listen to the concerns and opinions of the youth. They view them as a bunch of inexperienced people who should patiently wait for their turn at the national trough. The elders, hanging on to the vanishing tradition of mandatory reverence by the youth, are shocked by the language of impatience and agitation that is a normal communication style of the Twitter and Facebook generation.

It is a clash of civilisations, amplified by the dire economic challenges of overpopulation, unemployment, unplanned urbanisation and absence of sufficient old age security and pension plans. Old and young hardly listen to each other. If they did so, they would realise that the present and the future belong to all who are living. To suggest otherwise is to deny the youth their rights of citizenship and to kill the senior citizens before their time. Life is an unending relay between organised communities. The children, the youth, the middle aged and the senior citizens constitute the four relay race runners. Each play a critical role in the race.

The teams that succeed are those that make smooth baton transfers between the generations. Each generation recognises the indispensability of the others. They all work together to ensure group success and continuity of the relay. The children are fresh, eager to learn new ideas and are not afraid to say it as it is. The youth have vitality, boundless ambition and plenty of new knowledge and skills.

The middle-aged, sharpened by years of practice, are at the peak of their professional power. They anchor the relay, with a strong grip on the baton, until they release it into the safe hands of the senior citizens.

Like Usain Bolt, the Jamaican rocket with human legs, the senior citizens sprint towards their generation's finish line, propelled by decades of wisdom and experience. Without them, the race is lost. But their part is only possible when the others run their portions in this endless relay of life. The senior citizens pass the baton to the children, renewing the cyclical relay.

Societies that have recognised this have dispensed with age limits at both ends of life. Nobody is too young to be a useful and influential member of the community. Nobody is too old to matter in the life of the society. All listen to each other. They are a team.

Age alone is not a determinant of one's ability to contribute in one's area of expertise. With very few exceptions, there is no profession in which there is evidence of an age-based limitation to ability and excellence. That is why the business of retiring Ugandan civil servants at an early age robs the country of a very valuable resource. There is a false assumption that senior citizens are less able and cannot be trained and adapt to newer methods and technologies. It is also assumed that they are more costly to the organisation due to high salary expectations and presumed fragile health.

These are myths that are not supported by available evidence. Economic and human resource studies have repeatedly shown that older workers are highly-productive and do as well or better than younger workers on various performance scores. One study concluded that older workers "do not fear change but rather fear discrimination." The common practice of age-limits on who can apply for jobs in public and private sectors is wrong and discriminatory. It should be disallowed through an Act of Parliament.

One's competence, regardless of age, should be assessed and periodically reviewed using standardised tools that examine one's physical and cognitive abilities. Such an approach will identify and help the strugglers, and empower those who are able to continue to participate in the country's unending relay.

We need a reset of our mindset. When we lift the age limit on both ends of life, we discover the abundant energy and wisdom that propel societies forward.

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