When Words Get Old: Ageist Language

Released: 9/9/2008 4:10 PM EDT
Source Newsroom: University of Southern California
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Newswise — The wrong language " denigrating older workers, even if only subtly " can have an outsized negative impact on employee productivity and corporate profits, says Dr. Bob McCann, an associate professor of management communication at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business.

McCann is presently in Japan for the HORIBA-APRU Research Conference on "Aging in Place" at the University of Tokyo from September 8-12, 2008. At this conference, Dr. McCann, along with Dr. Hiroshi Ota of Aichi Shukutoku University, will discuss the important role of communication in older individuals' lives.

Demographic trends in both the USA and Japan point to a more age-diverse workforce, where worker shortages are imminent. According to McCann, older workers will play an increasingly important role in filling these shortages, and both management and workers will need to prepare themselves for this increasingly age diversified workplace.

One often overlooked way to prepare for these new trends is by recognizing that the language we use at work can have severe repercussions for older workers. "Our research in the USA and across Asia and has clearly shown links between ageist language and reported health outcomes as broad as reduced life satisfaction, lowered self-esteem, and even depression," said McCann.

Given that people derive so much of their identity from work, the workplace is a particularly fertile and problematic area for ageist communication. Both Japanese and American older workers often view their jobs as a tremendous source of pride and hope to continue working well past their early 60s. McCann feels that how we communicate with these older workers may go a long way toward creating a satisfying job experience.

"It is quite plausible that retirement decisions may be hastened and work satisfaction affected by intergenerational talk at work," said McCann, who worked on studies in the USA showing ageist language has played a major role in age-discrimination lawsuits.

Although age discrimination cases do not play a large role in the Japanese corporate landscape, in the USA these cases highlight just how significantly corporate profits can be affected by the words that we use at work.

For American corporations, age discrimination can lead to significant expenses. In Fiscal Year 2006, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received nearly 17,000 charges of age discrimination, resolving more than 14,000 and recovering $51.5 million in monetary benefits. Costs from lawsuit settlements and judgments can run into the millions, most notably with the $250 million paid by the California Public Employees' Retirement System under a settlement agreement a few years ago.

For the plaintiff, the defendant's ageist comments typically are perceived as clear evidence of the company's discriminatory intent toward older workers. Defendants, by contrast, generally view these same ageist comments as "stray remarks" proving little other than that ageism is prevalent in society at large.

Age-related comments such as "the old woman," "that old goat," "too long on the job," "old and tired," "a sleepy kind of guy with no pizzazz," "he had bags under his eyes," and he is "an old fart" are just some of the hundreds of ageist comments McCann unearthed in his analysis of age-discrimination lawsuits.

Such language has become so common in age-discrimination cases that some groups of ageist comments even have their own names. "Young blood" remarks are perhaps the best illustration, including such examples as: "We need young blood around here," "Let's make room for some MBAs," or "Let's bring in the young guns."

As Japan grapples with new retirement laws, traditions of basing pay on seniority, and one of the fastest growing older populations in the world, McCann hopes that both management and younger workers will better appreciate their value.

"Then," said McCann, "maybe ageist comments can be put out to pasture for good."

About the USC Marshall School of Business
Based at the crossroads of the Pacific Rim, in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California, the USC Marshall School of Business trains global leaders to make a difference in the world.

The school annually serves more than 5,700 undergraduate, graduate, professional and executive-education students, in programs at the main campus in Los Angeles, Irvine and North San Diego County. In conjunction with Shanghai Jiao Tong University, USC Marshall operates a Global Executive MBA program in China.

Marshall's many highly ranked programs and centers of excellence include the Leventhal School of Accounting. For more information, go to http://www.marshall.usc.edu


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