We need to stop the bullying and abuse of young people in the workplace under the guise of teaching them and initiating them into the workplace.
If you have to belittle someone, and break their confidence in order to assert your seniority that is a failure on your part, It is a lack of leadership and mentoring skills. It must also be said that being a senior or having been in an industry for a long time, does not automatically make you a “leader” or give you the qualities of being a mentor.
As a society we have normalised the abuse of young people in the workplace. We tell young people that they must break their backs working if they want recognition, that they must give their all and still understand and be okay when they aren’t recognised for their work. That they must deal with both the internal and external politics of feeling undervalued privately, but still show up for work at 8am without a question.
As young people coming into various industries, be it journalism, accounting or medicine, we are well aware of the importance and value of hard work. We know that you have to start somewhere and work your way up.
However, what young people (or anybody actually) need in any place of work is a supportive environment and holistic mentorship to be able to grow. Show me, teach me, give me responsibility and trust in what capabilities I have. We do not profess to know it all, but there are some things we know from our lived experiences, things we have learnt from each other and none of that should be disregarded in the name of seniority and experience.
It always amazes me how we are expected to go into workplaces, with a certain level of “start up”, we are expected to be the picture of innovation, we are expected to speak up and bring fresh ideas to the table. Where is this start up” supposed to come from if you are constantly being second-guessed and made to feel as though you know nothing?
I think to many people this may be misconstrued as the mentality of a young person in the workplace who is entitled and somewhat self-important. Perhaps. But still, I will not be ashamed for seeking gentleness. Every step that one takes to transition into the work place is both oppressive and repressive. Many of us, must go through a schooling system that makes us believe that if we do not think, or function in a certain way we are inadequate.
We then have to make our way into a university system that was never designed for us to prosper. We have to somehow make our way through four to five years of university with minimal financial resource, and in a pool of 30,000+ students we have to find something that will make us desirable in the workplace – despite the fact that we are all receiving the very same qualification. If we make it out of university, we then have to enter the job market, we find ourselves in a space where we are expected to be all things, even though we have come from nothing. Only to be torn apart at the hands of people who are supposedly mentoring you.
In my journalism year, we had a guest speaker who said: “I want to tell you now, that at this point. you do not matter and nobody cares about you.” A seasoned journalist said this to a room full of young hopeful journalists, who in a matter of months were expected to go into the industry and perform, even after being told that we did not matter. How can you tell me that I do not matter, and still expect me to produce work that matters?
This experience was a complete contrast to the one that I had with Former City Press editor, Ferial Haffajee. In my journalism year, Aunty Ferial was assigned to be my mentor. The relationship that we had, was one where my career aspirations were encouraged, but also realistically “managed” for lack of a better word. Aunty Ferial allowed me to share my ambitions with her, and at the time, when I told her that my interest was in war reporting, she did not immediately shut me down. Instead she told me to read, to do research, to speak to people who have been in the industry, she even offered to put me in touch with her own connections. Four years later, I have found myself in activism and not war reporting, but I do not view that as a failure, I see it simply as having taken another path. I did not fail as a person or a journalist because I didn’t follow my initial a career path. I have grown in different ways and I have learnt different things. In retrospect, I believe that Aunty Ferial wanted to make me actually think about what it is that I thought I wanted to be. She allowed me in the gentlest of ways, to figure out the direction of my career.
In that same year, a financial journalism lecturer remarked that I was going to die if I chose to go into war reporting. It so happened that I spent a year in the financial journalism sector, and it’s safe to say it was the worst year of my life. I died. Not dodging missiles in a war zone, but rather sitting comfortably in an air-conditioned office in the northern suburbs, every day from 9am to 5pm.
For six months I worked for a man whose only positive remark to me was “you look like you are half smart”. Everything that I learnt in that place, was from all the other “plebs” on the ground who were patient with me, were willing to share their knowledge and encouraged me every day to learn, to try harder and to do better. From the man who was the head of TV for an entire continent though, I learnt nothing about the craft of TV news, I learnt nothing of managing a team and perhaps more devastatingly I learnt nothing about myself.
It is time for people who are leaders in various industries and sectors to re-imagine mentorship. It need not be a violent process marked by belittling and bullying. It is okay for mentorship to be gentle, it is okay for mentorship to be nurturing, it is possible to shape and mould a young professionals career path without imposing your own insecurities on them and tearing them apart. And there are many people who have done that. I myself am a product of strong women, who were gentle with me.
So some unsolicited advice, young people in 2017 are ambitious, we are angry, we are a revolution-in-waiting, we are not afraid to do the work, but unfortunately we are also accustomed to having to exist in a system characterised by poverty, inequality and injustice. We are now wired to resist, our very existence is a constant act of defiance and if you choose to break us down and stilt our development for your own interests, you are not helping us. You are by no means harnessing our power for the greater good, you are only pitting us against you. In a system riddled with inequality and injustice, it will not help either of us to be at odds with one another. We are better together. DM
Nomatter Ndebele is a journalist at Section27. She has a background in financial journalism but quickly saw the light and is now a full time activist, blogger and tester of patience. She holds a degree from Wits University and is currently trying to figure it all out.
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine