Complaints about microaggressions -- the small everyday slights (intended or otherwise) that harbor an underlying attitude of racism, sexism or homophobia -- have been making the rounds of college campuses and workplaces. Microaggressions are things like touching a black man's dreadlocks or asking an Asian student where she's really from after she tells you "Queens."
But what's missing from the national conversation are the microaggressions of ageism -- the subtle things people say and do that show a bias against older people. Microaggressions impact older people in the same ways they do members of racial and ethnic minorities -- eroding self-esteem, causing distress and worst of all, closing doors to opportunities that should be open. A joke isn't funny if it harms people.
Here are some examples of microaggressions as they relate to ageism. Are you guilty of any?
1. A job ad that wants to hire a "recent college grad."
It's a microaggression and it's also illegal according to the EEOC, but that hasn't stopped it from being widely tolerated. Employers may seek a "recent college grad" because they want someone to work for cheap. But that said, many out-of-work midlifers would jump at the chance for a job with health benefits, regardless of whether the pay is low. Jobs that advertise for "recent college graduates" or "digital natives" send the message that older workers need not apply. Employers shouldn't assume that older workers won't be interested. Can you imagine a job ad that states it would prefer to hire someone "white" or "straight?" If that's not OK -- and of course it isn't -- then how can it be OK to say you want to hire someone "young."
2. Calling videos of older people dancing "adorable."
Adorable is not a term of respect. Adorable is fine to describe cute puppies and babies, but it's demeaning when used to describe older people who are simply having fun. Being called "adorable" doesn't make older people feel good; it makes them feel infantile. A 75-year-old does not want someone in their 20s to call him or her "sweetheart" either. When we Googled "adorable grandparents" we got 1,480,000 hits. Talk about overuse.
3. Jokes about older people having (or not having) sex.
Older people do indeed have sex. In fact, they have the high rates of STDs to prove it. If the idea of older people having sex makes you squeamish, that's your problem not theirs. Laughing at their expense is a microaggression. Enough with the hot flash and Viagra jokes.
4. Jokes about older people not knowing how to use a smartphone or being tech-illiterate.
When you do this, you are just perpetuating a stereotype that isn't true. Who do you think taught those recent college graduates the tech skills they now claim sole ownership of? Someone older, of course.
5. The tone of voice you use.
Older people are not all hard-of-hearing. You don't need to shout at them or use the same voice you would use with a small child. No one likes being patronized. According to research reported in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, young adults give directions differently to 65-year-olds than they do to 21-year-olds. Specifically, they speak to older adults more slowly and in higher-pitched voices -- two speech patterns associated with being patronizing, notes Prevention.
“When adults talk to you the way they do to a two-year-old, they’re presuming you’re not fully competent, and that’s demeaning,” study co-author Jessica Hehman, assistant professor of psychology and director of the Psychology of Aging Lab at the University of Redlands, told Prevention.
A friend just switched personal trainers because at 70, she was tired of hearing "good job" every time she completed an exercise set. "I'm not six years old, after all," she said. "What was next? A star chart?"
6. Using language that is unflattering to describe older people.
“Old man,” “gramps,” “geezer,” and “old bag” are terms in our daily vernacular that degrade older adults. When used in the workplace, they can have a negative impact on the well-being and the work-related outcomes of older workers.
7. Saying an older job applicant wouldn't be a good "cultural fit."
What exactly is a good cultural fit anyway? If most of the office is comprised of people who don't have family obligations to rush home to, does that mean no one can? We'd remind you that there was a time when a black or Latino hire wouldn't have been a good cultural fit because they weren't allowed to join the local country club to play golf. But civil rights laws presumably changed all that and an employer today wouldn't dream of applying this standard to a racial or ethnic group.
Isn't having age diversity an equally good thing? People of different ages bring different perspectives to a job. By 2020, 35 percent of the population will be age 50 or older. Who better to suggest products and services to bring to market than those who understand the needs of 35 percent of the population best? Doesn't that make more sense than worrying if the new hire will participate in Karaoke night with the office crowd?
8. Making jokes about the silly texts your parents sent.
Could you imagine how offensive it would be to share a post about all the "funny" ways a minority group is dumb? Yet this is precisely what happens when you read and share "joke" lists about how stupid your parents are when it comes to texting or using social media. They are intended to be funny, but are in equally bad taste.
9. When commercials suggest that older people are out-of-touch.
Anyone see this Katie Couric/Bryant Gumble ad for BMW's new electric car that feeds directly into the "old people are perpetually out of touch" theme? A microaggression that fuels an untrue stereotype, if ever there was one.
There's also this one from Esurance where an older woman labeled an "offline over-sharer" posts her vacation photos to the "wall" in her house, not her Facebook wall.
Showing older people as tech-illiterate fuels an untrue myth. Pew Research found that about 60 percent of people 65 or older are actively online. Pew also found that while in early 2014, 18 percent of those 65 or older had a smartphone, a year later, 27 percent had them. And how does this hurt? While the average age of a Facebook user is 40.5 years old, the average age of a Facebook employee is just 28. Why? Because of the mindset that older people aren't tech-savvy.
10. When a doctor talks to the adult child and not the older patient.
Having a conversation about a person right in front of them when they are perfectly capable of understanding what is being said is rude. It assumes an incoherency that doesn't exist. It is one of the reasons why older people prefer to see their doctor without an adult child in tow. Once there is someone else responsible in the room, doctors pretend older people are invisible.
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