By Sheila Callaham
There are no innocent parties when it comes to discriminating language. Everyone has made a pun at some point about a friend or loved one being over the hill or having a senior moment. On the other end of the scale, words like whippersnapper and young lady also carry age bias. While digital native may seem culturally acceptable, it applies only to those born into an era of the internet. By default, the same language excludes digital immigrants who learned how to navigate online platforms as they were launched, or afterward. In other words, it’s ageist.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 20% of the current workforce is over the age of 55, and the average age of the U.S. worker is 42.2. Moreover, those numbers are expected to increase as the two largest generational cohorts of Millennials and Baby Boomers age up the numbers.
Ageist language is becoming more prominent than ever before, and the impact is taking a toll on innovation and overall team success. In her article, “Ageist Language Affects Workplace Productivity, Profits” Laura Walter writes that in an analysis of age-discrimination lawsuits, using even subtle ageist language with older workers negatively impacts employee productivity and company profits.
Natural Classification and Implicit Bias
When you meet a stranger, what’s the first thing you notice?
If you said race and gender, you understand how your brain classifies information. Neuroscience research shows that “perceivers are attentive to the race and sex of a face within a fraction of a second of its presentation (within 100 milliseconds for race and 150 milliseconds for gender),” according to Galen V. Bodenhause, Sonia K. Kang and Destiny Peery, authors of “Social Categorization and the Perception of Social Groups” in The Sage Handbook of Social Cognition.
Milliseconds–that’s all it takes for the brain to take note. Age, while sometimes more challenging to determine, is not far behind.
To better understand why language is problematic, it’s worth recognizing the human need to make distinctions and organize information instinctively. Visual cues such as race, gender and age are primary categories people automatically use to categorize others and determine if the other person is part of their in-group or not, according to Bodenhause, Kang and Peery.
Surprisingly, when it comes to age-related bias, experienced workers can sometimes be their own worse enemy by using language that perpetuates the problem. I must be old and tired, is an example of language an older employee might quip after not picking up on something as quickly as a younger colleague. Statements to that effect implicate the speaker as, in fact, being old and tired. As language is repeated, it becomes a part of the acceptable vocabulary. Younger people then echo the phrase old and tired when they perceive the context to be appropriate. “The ageist thus insults his own future self,” writes Jamie Austin in her article, “The Irony Of Ageism: Insulting Our Future Selves.”
To complicate matters, age-related remarks may be well-intentioned, according to “The Language of Ageism: Why We Need to Use Words Carefully,” a research article published in The Gerontological Society of America. “For example, an ageist remark can appear on the surface as a compliment (e.g., addressing an older woman as “young lady”) when in fact they subtly perpetuate the idea that old is bad.”
The Importance of Change
To create a workplace culture of awareness and sensitivity requires an ongoing process of reprogramming how we perceive differences. Just like any other protected category, it begins with the acknowledgment that difference is not equivalent to bad. In the case of age, people tend to view the aging process negatively and language reflects this age-related bias. Change begins with recognizing the tendency to overlook older employees and job applicants for promotions and vacancies, and considering how doing so negatively impacts your workplace culture.
The only way to create real change is to ensure that everyone is on board and that’s got to come from the top. For recruiters and hiring managers, the end goal should be focused on the hard and soft skills each candidate brings to the table. And, if any member of the team is uncomfortable working with someone considerably different than themselves, then expectations around workplace culture and inclusion need to be aggressively addressed.
Said one high-profile recruiter, “I have at least one client a week ask me to look for younger applicants, and I always remind them I cannot legally respond to such a request. The most recent request came from the company CEO for an executive role.”
Businesses need the best talent to thrive. Considering the largest projected increase in the labor pool is in the 55 and older age group (6.4 million in raw numbers), recruiters and hiring managers need to ensure language doesn’t exclude them.
An earlier version of this post originally appeared on Forbes.com.