Ageism in the workplace is rife. Don’t get it twisted.


Young people are moving into the workplace with a type of boldness and tenacity that continues to challenge norms that encourage us to think critically about the world around us. In the South African context, youth face a myriad of challenges; high rates of youth unemployment, job scarcity and marginal education opportunities. This coupled with intergenerational trauma and inherited woundedness, leaves us, the black and brown youth of SA to fend for ourselves and in so many ways. The workplace mirrors society and it is not transforming fast enough to make room for this young generation of game-changers.

When I first entered the workplace, I thought that misogynoir would be my greatest deterrent from excelling in my role. While racism and misogyny is omnipresent and equally suffocating (especially in a place like Cape Town), it is in fact the dogmatic behaviour and attitudes based on age that continues to leave me at a loss for words.  Ageism is a form of discrimination on the grounds of age and while this term is, more often than not, used to describe discrimination towards the elderly; it is also a concept that encapsulates inequitable and discriminatory behaviours and practices directed at young people.

Ageism in the workplace is rife. Don’t get it twisted.

While speaking up against it might step on some toes, it is important that we do talk about it. Even if it is an uncomfortable or difficult conversation to have. The reality is that the belittling of young people in the workplace is a lot more common than one would think. I often hear of many stories, from fellow young professionals, who experience various challenges in the workplace: ranging from unfair compensation and exploitative labour practices to the undermining of someone’s contribution because they are young.

Of course, in the South African context, these experiences are compounded by the intersections of gender, race and class. In an article titled: Its Youth month, can I get a little bit of respect please?, Nomatter Ndebele speaks to how we, as a society, have normalised the abuse of young people in the workplace in that young people have to work 10 times harder for half the recognition, all while simultaneously being made to feel undervalued, being under paid and often being dismissed due to “inexperience”.

My friend, for example, started in the Cape Town coding industry last year in an entry-level post. A few weeks in, she found herself fulfilling multiple roles and managing several small projects. When she requested a salary increase for her continuously growing role, she was offered a salary increase of R1000, up from R12 000. I wondered if someone more senior would have been offered double that. I thought that if my friend were white and a cisgender heterosexual man, then things would have probably turned out very differently.

The truth is, the workplace is political and much like formal political, economic and social structures, the workplace is not changing fast enough to make room for young people. A vast number of millennials are trying to create our lives outside of inherited and rigid binaries. We are trying to carve out the lives we want to live, all against the harsh reality of a fractured society, an unjust and inequitable global economy, the failure of social and public goods, racialised and gendered inequality, continued environmental degradation as well as this intergenerational conflict that, not only, exists in the workplace but also in our homes and our communities. This leaves me with more questions than answers: Why is it that no other generation has been able to bridge this divide? Can this generation be the first?

Over a year ago, author Nomatter Ndebele wrote that young people are ambitious and angry. Ndebele further goes on to say that we are a generation that has now become accustomed to existing in a system characterised by inequality and injustice. Our knee-jerk reaction is to resist. Our very existence is an act of defiance. A revolution-in-waiting.

When we enter the job market, we do so coming from an education system riddled with inequalities. A large majority of us come from unending cycles of poverty and intergenerational trauma. We are reared to believe that our only hope to break this vicious cycle is to get an education and a good job. But even that is not ours alone. Our perceived upward mobility also belongs to the communities we come from, the families we are part of. Black tax refers to the added responsibility that comes with having to support extended family while at the same time trying to build a career and achieve financial stability (which in most cases remains a distant dream).

The reality is that very few young people make it through the education system, with even fewer making it through university. And with all these odds stacked against us, we are expected to enter the workplace with years of experience and the ‘right’ qualifications, only to be overworked, underpaid and to be broken down by a company culture that is set in its ways and management who drag their feet when it comes to transformation.

Let’s stop assuming that young people don’t understand the value of hard work. Young people are often thought of as ‘lazy’ or ‘complacent’ and this needs to be challenged. For a lot of us, all we have ever known is struggle and strife, and because of that, we have had to work twice as hard for half the reward and recognition. And we see this play itself out in school, in the university space and also in the workplace.

How can we, as a society in transition, move from dogmatic ways of organising ourselves within this rigid hierarchy that dictates and normalises the abuse of those at the bottom of this social structure? How can we mobilise our colleagues in our offices, across sectors, to start conversations around mentorship and nurturing leadership? How can we move away from top-down approaches to management and towards collaborative working environments, where each individual plays to their strengths and all expertise and contributions are valued in due respect?

Surely it is possible to shape and mould a young professional’s career in a way that is constructive. Surely, it is possible to create a supportive and holistic working environment, where one is fairly incentivised and compensated, where one is able to grow, where one is trusted and given the space to own one’s role. Young people have a lot to offer. We are changing the game and in so many ways. Stop dismissing our contribution on grounds of “inexperience”. Stop belittling us. Stop underpaying us and stop taking advantage of our eagerness to learn.

A colleague of mine once said that Age by itself is not an indicator of wisdom, smarts or intelligence. It is just an indicator of a longer – relative to someone younger – life. South African youth are finding a new voice, a new language to express ourselves.

We are an unapologetic generation and we have a lot to offer. So maybe it is time to listen.

Jodi Williams is a Cape Town-based activist.