Watch your language about age as you age

Young team leader correcting offended senior employee working on computer in office, female manager scolding aged old worker for mistake or incompetence, different generations and age discrimination

Image: fizkes/Bigstock.com

It was a delightful evening. We were having dinner with a group at a new restaurant. A couple known to some joined the group and were introduced.

‘What a day I’ve had,’ said the twenty-something female. ‘I’m so tired.’

She went on to explain her tiredness. She’d had an ‘apprentice’ follow her around during the day in her health-related job.

‘She must be at least 50—and is so slow,’ she commented.

Well, that’s a change, I thought. A Millennial complaining about a Baby Boomer at work.

I wondered if she would have complained if the ‘apprentice’ was her own age. Perhaps the twenty-something apprentice wouldn’t have turned up to work, or would have turned up late, or would have spent time checking her phone, taking selfies or wondering when the workday ended—to stereotype Millennials.

But such an attitude towards a Millennial (or Generation, X, Y, Z) could also be described as ageist. Ageism can go both ways.

The problem with ageist language

Is ageist language something we don’t actually realise we’re using? Some suggest it can be sprinkled through language without us being aware of it. Perhaps using ageist language is unintentional.

Are we, however, guilty of thinking ourselves ‘old’ or of labelling ourselves and making inferences about abilities related to age? For instance, an acquaintance recently mentioned having a ‘Seniors Family Social Gathering’ meaning that no-one under a certain age was allowed to attend. I’m not sure of the cut-off age for attendance.

Then again, how many of us hear words and phrases such as ‘old codger’; ‘silly old… ’; ‘geezer’; ‘grumpy old man’; ‘blue-rinse set’; ‘old biddy’; ‘little old… ’; ‘old folks’; ‘sweetie’; ‘dearie’; ‘having a senior moment’ (what about a ‘junior moment’?); ‘old bag’; ‘long in the tooth’; ‘still working’; ‘over the hill’; and ‘fogy’—to name a few.

The impression gained from such words is of fragility, feebleness and incompetence. They describe people who aren’t capable of being independent, empowered, or to make their own decisions—or, indeed, to have an opinion. Such stereotypes can be destructive.

It has been said that those who ‘experience and internalise ageism’ have negative health outcomes. Positive words, however, have a positive effect on people.

One report sensibly pointed out that we don’t refer to ‘junior citizens’, so why mention ‘senior citizens’? And, why put everyone above 70, for example, into one category?

The better way

There’s the point of view held by some that age should be celebrated. Celebrated in the same way a young child enthusiastically announces, ‘I’m going to be 6 next birthday,’ or ‘I’m eight-and-a-half.’ How many people in higher age groups are as excited by an upcoming birthday?

Let’s leave aside the ageist language and also the mnemonics (ever heard of a ‘WOTCHA’: Wonderful Older Thing Considering His/Her Age?) and concentrate on the abilities and skills of people.

I wonder if the ‘apprentice’ mentioned earlier went on to graduate?

‘Guard well your thoughts when alone and your words when accompanied.’—Roy T Bennett

Jill Weeks is the author of 21 Ways to Retire and co-author of Where to Retire in Australia and Retire Bizzi. She is a regular contributor to ABC radio.

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Category: Ageing, Attitude

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