Management’s big mistake putting the old out in cold

Shortly after I heard the sad news about the passing of Stephen Hawking on Wednesday morning, I had a disturbing conversation with a good friend who was laid off work about six months ago. I didn't think the two things were related but, after thinking about it quite a bit, I realised they were.

Hawking was one of the most brilliant minds ever and spent large parts of his life explaining the universe, black holes and relativity. He was without doubt the most famous scientist in the world. 

Having been diagnosed with a rare form of motor neuron disease in his early 20s, and given a limited time to live, he defied the odds and passed away at the age of 76. His mind remained active, despite his disability. 

This brings me to my friend, who I shall not identify to protect his privacy. He is one of the most brilliant technical people I have met and takes great pleasure in understanding and mastering all kinds of computer operating and design systems. We worked together more than 20 years ago when I was asked to manage a fourth-wave technology project and he was one of the resources made available to me. 

I learnt much more from him than he learnt from me. He was one of the hardest working people I knew. Over the years we remained in contact and saw each other from time to time. The last time we spoke, he told me about how the company he had been serving loyally for more than 20 years had sent him abroad to study new software that they hoped to use locally. He was very excited about this software, which he now understood better than anybody in the company.

Yet soon afterwards, the company faced some economic challenges and they decided to lay off some people, including him. This was despite them going ahead with the implementation of the new software. They figured they could probably bring somebody from overseas or somebody else could learn how to deal with the software.

In one stupid management decision, the company lost years of intellectual knowledge that they had built up over many years, knowledge he could now make available to others.

For the past six months, he told me this week, he has sent his CV to just about anybody he could think of, without any success. He has become despondent and has had to sell off some assets to make ends meet. I cannot believe that someone with such incredible skills and experience could struggle to find work.

I can only think that he is considered too old. He is in his early 50s.

I am in my late 50s and I have begun to wonder about at which point one no longer becomes useful to society. I have been fortunate that my skills and experience are still being sought by many people and companies, and I share them happily. I am still able to make a relatively decent living, even though some months are better than others, but that is the plight of anybody who does project-related work.

There are certain things that only come with experience and my big concern is that, because South Africa has such a huge unemployment problem, especially among young people, older people will be the first casualties and with them will disappear an intellectual memory that can never be replaced.

There will always be a clamour to create job opportunities for young people, but can we really afford to lose years of skills and experience? We must find a way of using the expertise of older people to create opportunities for younger people.

Obviously, political parties will focus on the youth because they form the majority in society and have the potential to determine who becomes our elected political leaders. They could also be an investment in the future. But clever political leaders will consider the valuable contribution that can be made by people who have done the hard yards. It does not have to be a matter of choosing youth or experience. There must be a way of choosing both.

Imagine if someone had told Stephen Hawking that he should retire at 60, because that is the retirement age for scientists. Or if Nelson Mandela was disallowed from becoming South Africa’s first democratically-elected president at the age of 75 because he was considered too old.

There is a saying that age is nothing but a number, but it is not. It is much more than that. It could indicate a lifetime worth of experience that could be put to great use in society. Mandela, at 75, was not too old. Hawking, at 76, was probably taken away too soon. My friend, at just over 50, is still a spring chicken in comparison but, unless he finds work soon, all his skills and experience could be lost to society. That would be a shame. Unfortunately, his story is not unique.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 17 March 2018)