Old. Dependent. Elderly. Isolated - using negative language to describe older people is simply ageism. It’s time to leave behind the negative labels
By Phil Richards.
By 2040 nearly 1 in 7 people are expected to be aged over 75. We’re all ageing – let’s find better words to celebrate it.
The ‘illusory truth effect’ is if you tell someone something often enough, they eventually start to believe it. This can be a wonderful thing, used to reinforce positivity. But it can also be extremely damaging when you’re repeating words that constantly undermine.
Using negative language like the small sample of words above about older people is simply ageism – and this unappealing habit has become so mainstream we hardly recognise we’re doing it. But the effects and consequences of our choice of vocabulary run deep. This socially ingrained ageism can become self-fulfilling as it repeats stereotypes of physical and mental decline, social isolation, and economic burden. There’s only so many times you need to be told that you are helpless or dependent before you start to believe it.
So negative language on age can have a deeply personal effect. Research shows that those in later life with a positive attitude to ageing are likely to live 7 and a half years longer on average than those who are depressed and downbeat. Our choice of words and the images they instil make it difficult to maintain that positivity for many.
Effects of ageism on society
Not only is our use of language having negative impacts on older individuals, but it also affects the way society views and treats them. Research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission on the Processes of prejudice, shows that subtle, implicit, forms of prejudice can be manifested through language; and that stereotypes can influence our judgements and behaviour even if we don’t agree with them.
People over 50 for example often say they are looked on as being ‘past it’. Business in the Community launched their Age in the Workplace report last month, highlighting that there are currently around one million older people who are out of work that want to work. Ageism in the workplace not only sometime drives older workers out but also makes it far more difficult to get back in, with older applicants being 4.2 times less likely to get an interview than younger applicants.
Asset-Rich Baby Boomers vs. Disadvantaged Millennials
And it’s not just in the workplace that negative language about age is creating problems. Apparently, the generations are at war with each other. Armies of grumpy Asset-Rich Baby Boomers fire salvos from behind the doors of their their huge houses. While hopeful but Disadvantaged Millennials try and fight back from their trenches of debt and inflated rent payment. Lumping all older people (as well as all younger people) into stereotypes is not only often wrong, but detrimental to social cohesion. Ageist language may not have created this divide, but it certainly doesn’t help heal it. The Centre for Ageing Better’s social research project exploring people’s wellbeing in later life conducted with Ipsos Mori showed there are six segments of those aged 50 and over, ranging from Thriving Boomers, to those Struggling and Alone. It’s important to remind ourselves that there are as many inequalities within generations as there are between the generations themselves.
We are facing a huge demographic shift. A recent report from the Government Office for Science shows, by 2040 nearly 1 in 7 people are expected to be aged over 75. We’re all ageing – let’s find better words to celebrate it.
Later life in 2015: an analysis of the views and experiences of people aged 50 and over