By Alliance for Strong Families and Communities Encore Fellow Ellie Mixter-Keller, age 63, and Alliance Director of Intergenerational Initiatives Emily Merritt, age 37 

At some point or another, most of us have formed subconscious, negative judgments about people based on their age. Unfortunately, it is so socially acceptable, most of us don’t realize when we are saying something ageist.  

Unfamiliar with the term? Ageism is discrimination against people of any age (often older people) due to negative stereotypes. While ageism exists, most of us subconsciously buy into societal stereotypes. It’s easy to make judgments about someone’s perceived age, and the effects can be damaging. One well-documented impact is that capable older people are often left out of the workforce.  

The Alliance’s initiative Second Acts for Strong Communities has faced this issue head on by acknowledging and elevating the strengths of older workers, and is helping organizations integrate an intentional approach to including people 50+ in their workforces and community-based programs. Second Acts data has demonstrated the critical need for, and great value of, organizations being age-inclusive, and also the powerful outcomes achieved when all generations are thoughtfully brought together in meaningful relationships.  

As life expectancies are increasing, we all are likely to live longer, healthier lives, creating a huge opportunity for all of us. By elevating the critical importance of being age-inclusive in our language and approaches, and becoming more aware of these biases, data shows we are less likely to act on these snap judgments and more likely to treat people fairly. 

Ageist Phrases to Avoid 

“Wow, you don’t look 65! You look fabulous!” Did you really mean, “You look great for an old person!?” If you want to flatter someone, consider an alternative approach by being specific. Instead say “Your smile lights up the room!”, “You have a great sense of style!”, or “You show so much compassion in your face!” 

“60 is the new 50.” We’re not sure what that even means, but we hear it all the time. Contrary to what you may think, many 60-year-olds are following their passions and leading engaged, interesting lives, like friends in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. An age is what it is, but it's how you live that age that matters most. Avoid stereotypes about any specific decade of life, because often they simply are not true. 

Using the terms “they” and “them” when talking about people of another generation. Rather, start using “us” and “we.” “Othering” any portion of society is not helpful or productive. As aging advocate Ashton Applewhite stated “They are us: our parents, our neighbors, our friends, and it is grotesque to suggest that our interests are inherently opposed... All of us were young, and everyone is old or future old. It makes far more sense to bridge this contrived divide than to succumb to prejudice against our own future selves.” 

Using “Young man,” “Girl,” “Kiddo,” to address someone other than an adolescent. It can be condescending, insulting, or imply a sense that ‘younger is better,’ instead of focusing on what we truly value and like about others.  

“Entitled millennials…” While Second Acts’ aim is to raise up the talents, abilities and value of older adults, we must also be careful not to use stereotypes against other generations. Our organizations, workforces, and communities are strongest when all people are valued, included, and have the opportunity to contribute without stereotypes or bias. 

“She’s young at heart” or “I’ll always identify better with younger people.” Again, while probably intended to convey a positive connotation or framed as a compliment to another, these statements ring undertones of ‘young is good’, ‘older is bad.’ We challenge you to think through what it is you really mean. Are you referencing a high level of energy? Agility? Sense of humor or playfulness? GREAT- then say those words instead of generalizing perceived characteristics of any generation. 

To continue this dialogue, and learn other evidence-based strategies to advance your age-related programs and policies, join us on April 10 for the webinar, Introduction to Reframing Aging: Changing the Talk About Aging, Older Adults, and Ageism, facilitated by Janine Vanderburg. 

To learn more about how to overcome biases related to aging, watch this Snapshots video of Jane Bavineau of Second Acts cohort site Baker Ripley. While Jane had worked in aging for her entire career, her perspective on older adults completely changed when she began using appreciative inquiry.