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Mind your language!

Here’s the news, we are at the beginning of a moment in history when there will be more older people in the world than at any other time.  This is necessarily going to reshape the way we work and the workforce, yet there is little understanding of how to tackle the pervasive issue of negative stereotypes of older workers.

Everyday language is one of the principal ways in which ageing stereotypes and discrimination are perpetuated. For example, the ‘joke’, that many older people themselves perpetuate, is having a ‘senior’ moment when you lose something.  Yet as Ashton Applewhite suggests in her TED talk, we lost things all the time when we were young but we didn’t call them a ‘junior’ moment!  It just goes to show how stereotypes become embedded and then operate in ways that make biases invisible.

Interestingly, some commentators are suggesting the word Senior has had its day. How is that if you are a senior consultant or executive you are imbued with authority, but when you are a senior citizen you suddenly have less visibility and are prone to assumptions about being less technologically savvy or less competent. Senior, for most people, generally means someone a lot more senior than me! According to some research (see page 36) senior citizen is actually offensive to people 55 and over.

With this in mind you may wonder why we use the word SeniorPreneur. To be honest, we don’t like it.  A SeniorPreneur is not actually any different from any other entrepreneur, it’s actually ageist to assume that they are ‘unusual’ given that the average age of a successful start-up founder is 45.  Yet we also recognize this demographic face particular biases which can impact on their ability to successfully establish a business and we want to address this.  For the most part, we use words such as 45+, experienced professionals and older workers to describe our target audience but we advocate for the irrelevance of age in the workplace. What matters is having the necessary skills and experience for the job or to run a business.  

Older workers have reported ageist language such as “too long in the workplace”, being “over the hill” and “dead wood” as well as comments like needing to “bring in the young guns”. Recruitment advertisements can also imply ageism.  For example, asking for someone with “five to seven years’ experience” or “energetic person sought for young company”.  The commonly used “Cultural fit” can often mask discrimination.

Becoming more aware of language is critical to changing attitudes and perceptions of employers and society in general. Many people are trying to find words which challenge traditional notions of age in the workplace such as mature workers or veteran employees, others think we should just move away from thinking about age as chronological, rather we should see it as individual as everyone experiences aging differently. 

 

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