Age is one of the first things we notice about other people. However, age is often used to categorize and divide people in ways that lead to harm. Ageism refers to the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age.
When we think about ageism, we often think of older adults. Yet ageism can create misleading and damaging perceptions of individuals at any age. For example, some people feel the term “young” signals energy and beauty. For others, the term communicates negative stereotypes about inexperience and levels of intelligence. Ageism against younger adults is sometimes referred to as “youngism.”
Unlike other causes of inequity, such as racism, sexism and gender, ageism is a systemic form of oppression that anyone can experience. Perhaps because it is universal, people do not always take ageism as seriously as other forms of inequity. But in fact, ageism is prevalent in U.S. mainstream culture and includes subtilties we often don’t recognize as ageist, such as a focus on appearing and acting youthful.
While aging carries negative connotations in popular culture, Native American, Japanese and other societies hold older individuals in high regard for their wisdom and experience. We can start to shift the narrative by highlighting advantages of aging rather than focusing on drawbacks. This might include skill, knowledge, judgment, perspective, and contributions to families and communities.
The way we write and speak about different age groups every day can play a role in enabling ageism. Using outdated or disrespectful language contributes to broader negative stereotypes and incrementally leads to age discrimination in all areas of life.
Grouping by Age
Categorizing individuals by age (e.g. “people under 30,” “older adults”) inadvertently implies that everyone within that group is the same. In fact, attributes like race, gender, health, and socioeconomic status can be equally or more influential on a person’s life than age. And when multiple identities intersect (age, gender, race, ability, socioeconomic status, etc) an individual may experience compounded oppression compared to others in their age group, which leads to more challenges.
Before labeling by age, consider whether it is more appropriate to highlight a different characteristic. Be thoughtful, respectful, and specific.
- Avoid terms like “elderly,” “seniors,” or “retirees,” that refer to older adults as a homogenous group. These words can be dehumanizing and make older adults feel like they are no longer a valued, contributing member of society. Note, however, that the term “elder” is a term of respect in some communities. Ask yourself whether it is important to reference a group’s age.
- Instead, consider using general terms such as “people,” or “individuals.” If you must reference a group’s age, use terms that are free of age bias like “younger people,” or “older people.” “Older adults” can be used to describe people who are over 50.
- Ageist stereotypes are rooted in the idea that getting and looking older is inherently bad or to be avoided. Or, that younger people are inexperienced or naïve. Such language can be patronizing and reinforce negative stigmas around different age groups. As such, avoid ageist messaging such as “senior moment,” “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” “X years young,” “young at heart,” “she looks young for her age,” “act your age,” “kids these days,” “he has an old soul.”
- Instead of using “old” and “young” as placeholders for negative or positive attributes, use the direct language you are trying to express. For instance, replace “older and wiser” with terms such as “experienced,” “thoughtful,” or “knowledgeable.” Replace “young at heart” with adjectives like “energetic,” “optimistic,” or “open-minded.”
- Avoid catch-all, pop-culture terms like “boomer,” “millennial,” “silver tsunami,” and “the graying of America” which reinforces negative stereotypes, can be over-homogenizing, and can be inferred as pitting one generation against another. Instead, specify the characteristics in question.
- Often terms like “spry,” “zesty,” “feisty,” “spirited,” and “full of life,” are sometimes used to characterize older adults. However, they can be considered insensitive because they imply that it is abnormal for an older person to be energetic or in good physical shape.
University of Utah Resources
Geriatric Care at University of Utah Health provides comprehensive, high-quality, and coordinated care for older adults so they can get the health and wellness they need.
University of Utah Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (UHEDI) has a mission is to create a culture where inclusion fuels innovation and quality while also addressing health and education inequities within U of U Health. UHEDI also coordinates outreach and inclusion efforts across U of U Health to ensure the workplace environment attracts and promotes the success of diverse communities.