Select Page

Image by Carlos Quintero on Unsplash.

Recently something interesting has been happening when I complain about ageism.

“Are you sure it’s ageism? Maybe. they’re just being friendly.”

Is this a form of gaslighting – saying, “It’s all in your mind?” Or a well-intentioned reality check?

With almost every “ism” you’ll get complaints. The New York Times published an opinion piece by a Black author offended by a watermelon joke. Some comments accused her of being too sensitive.

Here’s my test for deciding whether a comment is ageist:

(1) Does the comment make generalized assumptions about all people over a certain age?

In particular, does the comment assume people over a certain age have particular gifts (such as wisdom), problems (such as having trouble sleeping), or preferences (anything from early meals to a desperate desire for retirement)?

(2) Does the comment assume every woman over 50 is a grandma (like that ad, “So simple even a grandma could do it”)

(3) Does the comment support a stereotype that would make it harder for someone over 50 to be taken seriously?

How would a prospective employer hear the comment? Maybe you don’t want a job but you might be keeping someone else from getting one. Examples: References to getting tired easily, resisting change, or being unable to learn new things.

(4) Is the comment a patronizing compliment (the way you tell a 5-year-old her dance recital shows she’s a gifted ballerina)?

(5) Does the comment assume older people are helpless, frail or confused?

E.g., offering to help an able-bodied atheltic-looking person who’s checking her phone while waiting for an Uber or a bus [“Are you lost?”] r trying to figure out what street she’s on when the signs are missing [“Are you all right?”]

Dead giveaways: 

Calling anyone “cute” who’s over six and not a puppy, kitten, or bunny.

Calling anyone “young lady” who’s over the age of twenty…maybe sixteen.

Calling someone you don’t know “sweetie” or “honey” or “dear” (patting them like a cat is grounds for swearing)

Ageist examples:

“How nice that you are still writing book reviews!” [Do I sound obnoxious if I say, “I’m still writing books?”]

“You’re feeling busy and overwhelmed? Just retire! You’ve worked hard and now you should be able to do what you want.” [This is a value judgment. Not everyone wants to retire at any age. And why assume retirement is “deserved?” I wrote more about this here.]

At a networking event, near the buffet table:  “Are you retired?”  [Would I be here if I were? This is as ageist as it gets.]]

An orthopedic doctor evaluating an aching knee I’d banged up: “It looks like a normal knee for someone your age.” [Needs no explanation.]

Person on the next yoga mat: “Oh it’s so nice you’re here! You are amazing!” [Unless they’re talking to someone who does handstands and other complex poses. Ageist if addressed to someone older than most of the class who has to modify half the poses.]

“That’s okay. Even younger people have trouble doing that.” [Suggesting it’s all about age, not natural abilities or skills.]

So what’s NOT ageist:

“You’re really strong. Were you a dancer?”

“You’re very fit! Did you play sports in school?”

“Nice hat!” [It’s a baseball cap from a local thrift shop.]

“I want to be like you when I get older.” [Are you willing to work out 3X a week, give up doctors and swear a lot? I didn’t think so…]

“Do you want a senior discount?” [Yes. It’s called playing the age card. It’s society’s low compensation for age discrimination.]

“Where can I listen to your podcast?” [Here.]

“Where can I buy your book?” [Here.]