As we age, people make quick judgments about us.
“She’s too old to change.”
“He’s a dinosaur who can’t figure out the computer.”
That’s according to reports from the Reframing Aging Initiative, which works to debunk ageist attitudes that too many people hold about their co-workers.
These implicit biases against older workers can have wide-ranging consequences on these workers’ abilities to get jobs. Recent research, for instance, found that after you turn 48, you’re less likely to get a job in Silicon Valley.
But on an individual scale, there are ways each of us can work to be more inclusive of older workers. For well-meaning employees, here are reminders to check before you open your mouth and unknowingly alienate your older coworker:
Be mindful of phrases that assume older workers are inherently different
Ageist language inherently treats older workers as a different species, even when the language is disguised in a compliment. This assumption of inherent difference between older workers and younger workers is the root of ageist language, a study in The Gerontologist found. “Viewing older people as inherently different lead to a number of different generalities that were thematically identified as separate and distinct phenomena. These themes included uncharacteristic characteristics, old as a negative state, and conversely young as a positive state,” the study stated.
When you tell someone “50 is the new 30,” you’re framing older age as a negative state of being and are privileging youth. When you express surprise that an older coworker can stay up so late and is so technologically savvy, you are really saying that certain actions and behaviors are abnormal for older people to do. When you tell your coworker that they have a “young and free spirit,” you’re communicating that acting “younger” is preferable to acting “older.”
Respect people’s autonomy
This is a rule to follow with any coworker, but even well-meaning coworkers can trip up and put their foot in their mouth by offering older workers assistance where it’s not needed. If someone is moving more slowly or is using a cane, don’t assume helplessness.
“Would you like assistance?” is a question that Kaiser Health News recommends using to offer help while respecting an individual’s autonomy.
Watch your tone
As you’re talking, be mindful if you’re raising your voice to an older coworker. Research in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior found that young adults talk to 65-year-olds differently than they do to 21-year-olds. When these adults would give directions, they would speak more slowly and in a higher pitch to people they perceived to be older — traits that are judged as sounding patronizing.
“When adults talk to you the way they do to a two-year-old, they’re presuming you’re not fully competent, and that’s demeaning,” the study’s co-author Jessica Hehman said.
These are small steps anyone can all follow to treat coworkers with respect and build good will, because time comes for us all. You want how you treat your older coworker now to be how someone will one day treat you.