Ageism is the “last acceptable bias,” at least according to the AARP. While age-based prejudice is more often directed at older workers, it does go both ways: “Both older and younger adults are often disadvantaged in the workplace and access to specialised training and education decline significantly with age,” says the World Health Organisation. In the workplace specifically, a 2019 study showed that one out of every five American workers age 40 and older said they’ve faced age discrimination.
But ageism isn’t always obvious discrimination. Sometimes it’s a small comment that subtly perpetuates the idea that “old” is code for “bad.” Take Kevin Hart’s now meme-ified reaction to Don Cheadle’s age. Even the most well-intentioned comments can turn out to be ageist microaggressions. Below are common phrases that often do more harm than good when it comes to addressing someone’s age.
“You don’t look [insert age here]!”
Honorable mention: 50 is the new 25! Even though you probably intended this as a compliment, in most cases the implication here is that whatever age they actually are is “bad” for some reason. In this instance, you might want to reconsider whether you even need to comment on the person’s age at all.
“They’re young at heart.”
While probably intended to convey a positive connotation or framed as a compliment to another, these statements ring undertones of ‘young is good,’ ‘older is bad.’ We challenge you to think through what it is you really mean. Are you referencing a high level of energy? Agility? Sense of humour or playfulness? …Say those words instead of generalising perceived characteristics of any generation.
In other words, try to identify the compliment you mean by “young.” This way, you avoid the implication that being “old” is antithetical to who they are.
Unless you’re talking about throwing spices on a chicken, “seasoned” comes across as a gentle way of dismissing someone as “old.” Like with the “young at heart” advice about, try to articulate what you really mean–whether that meaning is positive, e.g. “experienced,” or negative, e.g. “out-of-touch.”
I’ll admit it. My biggest issue with this phrase is that it’s hack comedy at this point. On a more serious level, “OK boomer” has the same problem as characterising all millennials as “entitled.” It’s lazy and unfair to dismiss someone based solely on generational stereotypes.
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
This one isn’t even true in the canine world. You might say this one casually, without really meaning anything by it. However, the sentiment here can cause real economic harm when older people are basically seen as unteachable and thus unhirable.
“Can I help you, young lady?”
Why are you calling my grandmother a young lady? This is weird and assumes that young is a compliment, while reality must be an insult. Hey, maybe you don’t need to reference her age at all.
“Young man,” “Girl,” “Kiddo”
Unless someone is literally a child, please refrain from these patronising (and creepy!) terms.
“You probably won’t want to use this new platform…” / “If you have trouble learning the technology…”
Even if you’re trying to be accommodating for older coworkers or family members, it’s condescending to assume that they’ll reject new technologies. In the workplace, this could close them off from opportunities available to the rest of your team. If someone is resistant to a new platform, address it on an individual basis, rather than letting it become part of an age-based stereotype.
As a rule of thumb, think about whether your comments reinforce the idea that age is the end-all-be-all for how someone thinks, acts, and offers value. When in doubt, you probably don’t need to address someone’s age at all.