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Would you know ageism if you saw it?

The first time (years ago) I heard an engineer describe their product as “so easy even your mom can learn it,” I didn’t think much of it. In retrospect, it was my first introduction to the insidious bias that exists when it comes to age demographics.

To start with, “so easy even your mom can learn it” is a 1-2 punch. It’s ageist AND sexist. The sexist part, the stereotype that women are inherently less technical than men, has been discussed in many places.

But many people who point out the sexism in “even your mom can learn it” don’t think about the age part. I certainly didn’t the first few years I heard this. I was young enough that age wasn’t on my radar. We are better at seeing what we experience ourselves.

Ask yourself how you’d react in a meeting if you heard “so easy even a woman can learn it.” You’d recognize it immediately as a problematic and sexist statement. You might even call this out in the moment. But when you pair “woman” with “old” to get something like “mom,” the statement becomes more acceptable to many people.

Many among us have been taught to push back on sexism, racism, and other forms of demographic discrimination, and we might do our best to do so. But at least in the US, our point of view on ageism is mostly formed by implicit cultural messaging rather than explicit education.

Because of that, age is an area where many people who are otherwise thoughtful about language show conscious bias. How often do we hear (or say) things like:

  • "So easy even your mom can use it"
  •  "3.5 GPA required"
  • "Perfect for new grads"

Age is super interesting because, simply by living our lives, we will change demographics as time passes. We all change age demographics just by surviving another decade, even if nothing else about us changes.

Not every environment has to be designed to be age-inclusive. A playground that is developmentally designed for preschoolers won’t attract non-parent adults, or even 8-year-olds. A retirement community won’t attract college students as residents. That’s okay.

But this got me thinking about age-inclusive environments and what it takes to build them, both structurally and linguistically. The local Y where I swim is a great example of a successful age-inclusive environment, with members spanning decades.

The Y is age-inclusive partly because they have a range of activities (fitness classes for all levels AND youth sports; community potlucks AND kid summer camp). But their success comes not only from their programming, but also from their thoughtful communication about who the space is for.

As an organization, the Y holds an intentional value that it exists to serve the community, and the community includes residents of all ages. Messaging is designed to appeal broadly, excluding no one:

  • "Community potluck. All are welcome!"
  • "Lap swim is for swimmers of all abilities!"
  • "Reduced price for youth and senior citizens"

This in turn started me thinking about other environments that are intended to be age-inclusive, but often aren’t: modern workplaces.

Every time we share words, we communicate more than just the words; we communicate who our space is for. Thinking about age is pushing me beyond thinking about “neutral” communication, and towards thinking about “inclusive” communication. For instance, what if the opposite of “gender-biased” is not “gender-neutral,” but actually “gender-inclusive?"

Whether it’s gender, age, race, ethnicity, or anything else, what would it mean for us to get beyond demographically “neutral” into something more proactive? Seeking not to offend people is not the same as seeking people out because you value who they are.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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