Skip to content

Watch your language to reap the business benefits

By Jilly Forster

13 July 2016
, ,

An age-shift is underway in society. People are living longer but we haven’t yet fully woken up to the value of older adults. Just check out the language often used to talk to or about older people – demeaning and diminishing words and phrases that reinforce ignorance and institutional ageist attitudes.

In terms of their intellectual capital, experience, financial assets and spending potential, older people are a crucial resource to this country.  And yet many businesses simply aren’t aware of or set up to manage the mutually-beneficial opportunities that come from employing, providing services for or communicating with older adults.

Worse still, the language used when talking to or about older people actually devalues them. Language can shape preconceptions and fuel misunderstandings. It can create the foundations upon which stereotypes and discrimination are built. And despite the fact it’s no longer acceptable to use racist or sexist terminology, there appears to be a latent cultural tolerance for ageist words and phrases.

Active and aggressive, discrete and pernicious

In some instances, ageist language is active, intentional and aggressive, as with Giles Coren’s recent post-referendum rant in The Times entitled “Wrinklies have well and truly stitched us up”. Other words and phrases used to describe older people, such as ‘elderly’, ‘frail’, ‘over the hill’, ‘codger’, ‘decrepit’, are equally damaging in the way they disparage older adults.

In other guises, ageist language is more subtle. Condescending phrases like ‘old granny’, ‘spritely’, ‘sweet’ or ‘good for their age’ abound in the media and everyday conversation. Even if not intended maliciously, they reaffirm the stereotype that all older people are vulnerable; that health and vitality in older adults are anomalies, and that in general older people are a burden.

This discrete yet pernicious use of language, which leads to ‘inadvertent ageism’, can have a major impact on the way we treat older people, and on the way older people view themselves. There’s certainly no place for it in modern business culture, particularly among organisations looking to promote equality and diversity. To put it bluntly, it is really bad for business.

Research from the Department for Work and Pensions and Business in the Community confirms that half of all people leaving work before state pension age feel compelled to do so, despite still having much to contribute to their organisation’s performance. The language of diminishment and decline, so often associated with older people, no doubt exacerbates this trend – fuelling assumptions about their professional capabilities and ambitions, and hastening them towards the exit door.

Shaping a new lexicon

Over the last decade I’ve seen changes in the language considered acceptable regarding race, sexuality and disability – whether on the street or in the media – and we have enjoyed the benefits of those changes in business, culture and wider society. There have been campaigns to ban the use of words like ‘nutter’ and ‘psycho’ from conversations around mental health. There have been strenuous attempts to kick racist language out of organised sport and society in general. But we have yet to see the same concerted effort to tackle the discriminatory language so frequently used to describe old age and older people.

Of course, the counter argument is that ‘they’re just words’, political correctness gone mad. I disagree. Maya Angelou once said: ‘Words are things. They get on the walls…in your upholstery and your clothes. And finally, into you.’ Words can cause great long-term damage. They can affect people’s self-esteem, limit their opportunities, and impact their quality of life through fear and alienation. The flipside is that they can inspire, involve and empower, making people feel part of something, valued and respected.

There is a massive opportunity for businesses to change how they talk about getting older and engage positively with The Age Shift. Think about the language you and your organisation uses to address or describe older people. Think about how your communications or policies might be affecting them or making them feel.

Let’s shape an age-aware lexicon that doesn’t ignore the value, diversity and dynamism of older people or consigns them to an undifferentiated demographic mass. So, in addition to the obvious blacklist of terms such as ‘old timer’ and ‘past sell-by date’, consider avoiding the following:

  • Ageing… can make it sound like someone is declining, fading
  • Ageing in place (meaning older adults living in their own homes)… sounds like you’re talking about a potted plant or a root vegetable
  • Ageing gracefully… meant to be complimentary, but conjures up images of older people waltzing through meadows. Also suggests that the norm in something ungraceful or unsightly
  • Senior citizens… we don’t refer to the under-50s as ‘junior citizens’, so as a prefix this feels redundant
  • Elderly… suggests care homes, seaside promenades, lack of autonomy and independence
  • Pensioner… an outmoded and inaccurate descriptor, unless you’re talking about a thoroughbred horse that has retired from stud. There has been no legal retirement age since 2011 – some people work into their seventies, some people retire in their fifties 

Instead, how about: ‘older people’, ‘older adults’, or simply ‘man’ or ‘woman’ followed by their age? These options seem to me more balanced and unbiased. Of course, we need to look beyond language to address the ageist attitudes and behaviours words can both reflect and reaffirm. But a great place to start is to watch our words and start rectifying language-based age discrimination.