According to the 2019 Hiscox Ageism in the Workplace Study, one out of every five American workers over the age of 40 reports that they’ve faced age-related discrimination. As unfortunately, this form of bias is more prevalent than ever, one should be on the lookout for subtle displays of it in the workplace – especially in something as innocuous as an email.
1. “She’s a recent college graduate.”
While you might not hear companies asking specifically for applicants under 30, it’s more common to hear subtle digs against someone’s age emerge in the form of vague youth-related milestones, especially in a casual setting like an email.
Foley reports that though the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission “has taken an aggressive position” against combatting ageism, they cite that ads “seeking recent college graduates” are discriminatory because they discourage older workers from applying. This can extend beyond ads into more passive-aggressive forms: “Well, Greg is a recent graduate in the field of accounting, so he should take on the budget project.”
While it seems intuitive, there could be a hidden meaning, one that disenfranchises an older worker in favor of a more youthful perspective.
2. “They’re a young company.”
A “young company” serves as a kind of double entendre. While one could be referring to a company that’s just got its feet off the ground, they could also be referring to a company filled with "sharp, young minds," all under the age of 40.
It’s not hard to imagine how older adults could feel marginalized by reading their coworkers or bosses casually write about "young companies" with an air of excitement. And, unfortunately, the data reinforces that there’s a generational divide in how these two populations think about work. Insider notes that “a 2016 poll found 40% of Boomers stayed with an employer for at least 20 years,” whereas in startups or smaller tech firms, it’s common to change jobs after four or five years, moving onto your boss’ next venture right along with them.
Fast Company indicates that this might be the case because “many mature organizations possess a 'pay your dues' mentality with timed career progressions where it can be nearly impossible for younger employees to accelerate.” Consequently, younger people have created younger companies to fit this more rapidly-paced model of career growth, all while squaring older adults out.
3. “Let’s work on some digital upskilling.”
We’ve heard the trope everywhere: old people are bad with technology. It pervades at home, teaching grandma how to use the remote, and in the workplace, when your older boss needs help setting up a Zoom meeting. Unfortunately, this sly insult against one’s technological literacy is a circular problem reinforced by the tools given to “digital upskill.”
Business Insider reports that in “a 2016 Dropbox survey of more than 4,000 IT workers,” those in a 55+ category and those in the 18-34 category, “used nearly the same number of forms of technology a week.” So while it might seem like older populations need to get more familiar with technology, the statistics show that they already are.
Regardless of the fact that many younger and older people use the same types of technology, there’s still a push to learn more and do better — sometimes to the detriment of a worker’s self-esteem. A Docebo study indicates a similar sentiment. “One in three working Americans … say they feel pressure to learn new tech-related skills to protect their jobs,” and 49% of workers believe it might give them a promotion or raise. However, one out of four working Americans feel they don’t have those skills available, and that the tools to learn those skills are out of reach. Telling older employees via email that they need to "invest" in this part of their skillset may leave out important context you need to include and harm their self esteem.
4. “You know so-and-so, they’re old school.”
While more of a colloquial insult than a business-related one, complaining that someone “old school” is a subtle more delicate way of rolling your eyes at their antiquated philosophies. Via email, snubbing someone in this way can permanently impact others' perceptions of them.
Stack Exchange argues that calling someone old school “implies out-of-date thinking,” and that context is especially important when you’re talking about past values contradicting with present ones. Older generations have luckily found ways to retake this former insult; there’s even an anti-ageist clearinghouse founded by activist Ashton Applewhite called – you guessed it – Old School.
5. “If you have trouble learning the technology.”
Another tech-related insult is one that assumes that even if you need to learn new technology, you’ll be having trouble with it. This can, again, hit hard at an older worker’s self-worth in the office, and make one feel inept or incompetent when used in an email before a meeting, speaking event or interview.
28% of older professionals in the U.S., Dice reports feel they “don’t have the skills needed to win a new job.” Additionally, when these adults were asked to compare their tech skills to that of their younger counterparts, “nearly half of all Baby Boomers felt those younger than them had better tech skills.”
6. “He’s a very seasoned executive.”
Let’s face it: “Seasoned” is a synonym for old, whether it’s a compliment or an insult. Especially in the world of hiring, SHRM notes, “as employers’ desire to snag tech-savvy Millennial workers reaches a fever pitch” there’s been a transition in the world of hiring “away from “experienced” and “seasoned” and toward “high-potential” and “energetic.”
While it can certainly be used passive-aggressively, perhaps to describe an employee on their way out or someone who’s past their prime, it doesn’t have to be a negative thing. In fact, AARP puts a more positive spin on the term seasoned, as it can be thought of as a tactful euphemism for one who “has been well rubbed with the spice of life on his or her journey… a human with a complex flavor profile.”
— Sara London
This article originally appeared on Ladders.