I’ve come to notice something: Most people simply don’t take ageism seriously. I bet you know what I’m talking about. You’ve probably heard people at the office attribute an older employee’s mistakes to his/her age and (alleged) loss of mental sharpness. Or, perhaps you’ve heard others criticize an older employee for pursuing an academic degree, license, or certificate that his/her critics think will never be put to good use. Or, perhaps you have heard an employee is being let off the hook for use of a new technology because that employee is “just too old to catch on.” And if, like me, you protested any of these statements, your complaints were probably dismissed out-of-hand. Many of the same people who would never utter a racist word or discriminate on the basis of religion or some other factor often seem to have absolutely no difficulty bashing someone based upon age.
These people aren’t stupid. They know that there are laws against ageism. They know that humans are living longer and more actively. They know that the workplace is now very multi-generational. Yet, they persist in ageist words and deeds.
Is there anything more to be done? Yes, I think so. I believe that one thing we can do is to prohibit the use of the word “old” in the workplace and in other public places (e.g., colleges and universities) in much the same way we prohibit the use of racial slurs and similar ugliness. Language is important. It reflects many things about a culture:
As a means of communicating values, beliefs and customs, [language] has an important social function and fosters feelings of group identity and solidarity. It is the means by which culture and its traditions and shared values may be conveyed and preserved. (New South Wales Department of Education, 2015)
What words we use and don’t use say something about us and our convictions. Will prohibiting use of a word result in changed thinking? Yes … but maybe not all at once. Culture change can take awhile. Not allowing for the use of “old” to describe a worker or classmate won’t necessarily riddle the workplace or classroom with an egalitarian perspective on aging. However, it will lead some people in that direction. And that is always a good place to start a revolution.
New South Wales Department of Education. (2015). RacismNoWay (website). Retrieved from https://www.racismnoway.com.au/about-racism/understanding-racism/the-importance-of-culture-language-and-identity/