Recognizing Subtle Ageism

Recently, I was speaking with a client about the issue of subtle ageism in adult marketing. She was particularly fascinated by the reactions that people had when they learned of her father’s passing. The first question nearly everyone asked was, “How old was he?” Her response was brilliant: “Why does it matter?”

Without realizing, these people were playing into subtle ageism by asking this question, which makes the assumption that, if a person is of advanced age, death is acceptable; whereas, if the person were younger, the death would be more tragic. The reality is that death of any kind is painful, regardless of the age. The interesting question is, “When does someone become old?” Is 60 too young to die? 65? 70? At what age does it become acceptable for someone to pass? At what age does it become appropriate for us to treat someone differently? This kind of query is at the heart of the ageism issue.

One American ritual of aging is the AARP card. The American Association of Retired Persons is an expert at engaging and mobilizing older adults. But the age at which you first receive an offer to join is often much younger than expected. At 50, a person can become a member! For the last several decades, becoming an AARP member has symbolized the transition from adult to retiree.



However, when you can become a member at 50, what does that say about our culture? On one hand, it breaks the mold and helps fight against ageism, recognizing that people from the ages of 50 to 90 may experience the same problems and need the same protection. On the other hand, it can reinforce ageist tendencies, as 50 year olds toss the membership invitation into the trash, proclaiming, “AARP is for old people, not me!”

Since we were children, we have been told to “act our age.” Then, at some point in life, this phrase stopped becoming an admonishment to grow up and instead took on overtones of slowing down. Asbury Communities, in Maryland, recognized this trend and has developed a new media campaign titled #ActYourAge. The campaign posits the question, “What’s age got to do with it?” Then, via social media, it shares examples of older adults who continue to pursue their passions and contribute to society and, in some cases, engage in activities mostly associated with younger people. By defying the stereotypes associated with aging, they hope to make people more aware of how subtle ageism occurs in our everyday life.

As a marketing professional, representing products aimed at Boomers and seniors, understanding how your tactics may be perceived is important. A great tool for examining this is called the “Hidden Bias Test.” If you are concerned that your language may be ageist, just replace the ageist remark with something gender- or race-related. 

For example, let’s say you are cashing out customers at a restaurant that offers a senior citizen discount. Normally, you say, “If I may ask, how old are you? I’d like to apply our senior’s discount if you qualify.” 

Now, let’s replace the ageist words with racial ones. 

“If I may ask, how Hispanic are you? I’d like to give you our Latino discount if you qualify.” 

Obviously, you would never say the latter to any customer, but the issues are generally the same. Discriminating based upon age, even for good intentions, subtly reinforces the idea that being of advanced years changes your value to society. A senior discount seems like a nice gesture to honor the elderly, right? But, on the other hand, isn’t it implying that because someone is old, he or she is probably poor and can’t afford to pay full price? It all depends on one’s perception of the situation, which you can’t always judge in your customers.

Our words have power. We learn this on the schoolyard the first time someone points out something that makes us different, hurting our feelings. When we age, we become immune to the trivial slights of everyday life, including those that reference our age. The only way this changes in our culture is if we take steps, every day, to modify our behavior and influence the behavior of others.

4 comments about "Recognizing Subtle Ageism".
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  1. Paul Flowers from CIRCA 46, May 22, 2017 at 10:46 a.m.

    This reminds me of an article about "the top 10 ageist complements" that ran in The Huffington Post last year.  I found it remarkably revealing as it related to my own attitudes (and I'm 64).  Here are the complements:

    1. When a waiter asks an older woman, "What can I get for you today, young lady?"
    2. "My grandparents are so adorable..." then go on to relate something stupid they did.
    3. "She's 75 years young." (like being "young" is good but being "old" is a negative)
    4. "You're only 70? You're not so old." (see #3)
    5. "You don't look 65." (which demands the question, what does 65 look like)
    6. "You are still..." (fill in the blank here - what are you NOT supposed to be able to do as an older adult?)
    7. "You are proof that 60 is the new 40." (see #3-6)
    8. "At your age, you are allowed to forget somethings (like younger people don't ever forget anything?)
    9. "My Mom is the best!" (followed by showing some text she sent inwhich she appears stupid or tech-illiterate)
    10. "Wow! You are as sharp as a tack!" (because old people are supposed to be a little weak mentally)


  2. Wayne Langley from Varsity , May 22, 2017 at 11:25 a.m.

    Agree Paul - it's a reminder to all of us as to our own inherent bias toward people. We often experience our attitudes arising in the simplist on conversations! Great list you left!! 

  3. Patricia Friedlander from Word-Up!, May 22, 2017 at 12:07 p.m.

    Let me add #11: The grandmother meme--as in: So simple your grandmother understands it, or something you can see with your grandmother--ad inifinitum. The ultimate in tech illteracy, stumbling mental and physical facilities--yep, grandma. I actually wrote to a publication that sent out paid content that used the "so simple" verbiage to say they should vet the ads they accept for ageism. BTW, I'm a 75 year old grandmother, in the middle of hacking Instagram stories for an event.

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited replied, May 22, 2017 at 3:07 p.m.

    According to my 102 friend who still goes to the gym by herself, you are just a baby.

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