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7 phrases people think are okay to say at work but are actually ageist against your coworkers

  • One out of every five American workers age 40 and older said they've faced age discrimination, according to the 2019 Hiscox Ageism in the Workplace Study. 
  • But ageism also impacts younger workers, too. 
  • Sometimes ageism comes out in the form of microaggressions, which are indirect, often unintentional expressions of prejudice.
  • Statements that assume an older worker won't want to adopt a new technology or that a younger colleague is an intern are exclusionary and hurtful. 
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Ageism is prejudice or discrimination based on a person's age. And it's a big problem in the US.

One out of every five American workers age 40 and older said they have faced age discrimination, according to the 2019 Hiscox Ageism in the Workplace Study. 

And if you've never experienced ageism, you likely will, according to AARP, whose 2019 investigation called the form of prejudice "widespread" and the "last acceptable bias." While ageism is more often directed at older workers, it can also happen to younger workers (or workers who appear young), too. 

Sometimes ageism comes out in the form of microaggressions, which are indirect, often unintentional expressions of prejudice. They can make your colleagues feel undervalued, excluded, or harassed. 

Phrases that are subtly ageist against your older coworkers 

"Maybe we shouldn't give that project to John, he might have trouble learning the new technology." 

The belief that older workers aren't technologically savvy or capable of learning new platforms is damaging and untrue.  

A 2016 Dropbox survey of more than 4,000 IT workers around the world found that workers ages 55 and older and those ages 18-34 used nearly the same number of forms of technology a week — 5 and 4.67, respectively, Fortune reported.

"We're looking for a youthful, energetic, agile worker to join our team." 

This type of language can make an older worker feel like they might not fit into your company culture. At best it's exclusionary, at worst, it's discrimination.  

"Ok, Boomer!" 

Many young people have taken up this phrase as a catch-all response to a problematic comment made by someone older than them. But it makes older workers feel dismissed or humiliated. If a coworker has said something you don't agree with, you can easily voice your opinion or state a fact without attacking them personally. 

"You probably won't want to use this new platform, but…" 

A 2005 Louisiana State University study analyzed employee's willingness to adopt new computer technology. It found that older workers weren't just willing to learn the new technology, they were actually more willing than their younger counterparts.  

"It's this new trend you probably haven't heard of…" 

This type of comment assumes your older worker lives under a rock, which is pretty insensitive.

It goes without saying, but they're in touch with the cultural zeitgeist just as much as any younger person.

Phrases that are subtly ageist against your younger coworkers 

"Are you an intern?" 

When you meet someone who looks younger than you, don't assume they're an intern or an entry-level worker. That assumption can make your colleague feel like they're not going to be taken seriously, which is damaging.  

"It's this long-standing theory you probably haven't heard of…" 

This type of comment assumes your younger colleague isn't educated or informed on things that may have come before their time. If you worry someone might not know what you're talking about, wait for them to ask you. 

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