2 Common Work Questions That Are Secretly Ageism In Disguise

Ageism is everywhere — even in the office. Don't be part of the problem.
Stop putting limits on people’s capabilities just because of how old they appear.
Portra via Getty Images
Stop putting limits on people’s capabilities just because of how old they appear.

Ageism is prejudice based on age. If you work long enough, you’ll overhear it from colleagues who share these views openly ― because it is still seen as acceptable to judge people based on how old they are.

“Ageism is such an invisible force within society. And it’s one that we have literally been taught since we were young,” said Tracey Gendron, director for the Virginia Center on Aging and the author of the book “Ageism Unmasked: Exploring Age Bias and How to End It.”

She cites examples ranging from children’s literature with old witches and beautiful young princesses to a thriving anti-aging business making money off of making people look younger. Once we internalize ageism, “we become afraid of our own aging, we disassociate with our own aging, and we only see aging as a process of decline,” Gendron said.

Even if aging does not directly affect you now, it will later. How you think about aging can literally add years to your life. In one 2002 longevity study, researchers followed over 600 Ohio residents older than age 50 for two decades. The older people who had positive beliefs about aging lived seven and a half years longer than those who did not.

That’s why it’s important to stop putting limits on people’s capabilities just because of their age. Here are two of the most ageist comments you’ll hear at the office:

“When do you plan to retire?”

Beyond being ageist, this kind of question also carries classist implications.

The retirement question has “assumptions that all older people can afford to, that they want to, that the dream is to retire. And none of those things may be true,” Gendron said.

“People get a lot of purpose out of working. And, you know, some people are like, ‘I’m just starting, when I’m 60 or 70,’” she added.

When it comes up in job interviews, the retirement question can be a hiring manager’s clumsy attempt to learn how long an aging candidate plans to work. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects U.S. workers who are 40 and older from being discriminated against on the basis of age, but colleagues and managers may still make inappropriate assumptions.

Instead of asking job candidates when they plan to retire, you can simply ask about their three-year plan. As New York-based employment lawyer Domenique Camacho Moran previously told HuffPost, a more appropriate way to ask about a job applicant’s desired future is to say: “We expect that this job is going to take three years. Are you willing to commit to three years, assuming all goes well?’”

In general, you should keep opinions about what your colleague should be doing with their free time to yourself. Janine Vanderburg, who leads the anti-ageism nonprofit Changing the Narrative, said a frequent unwanted question older workers get is: “Don’t you want to spend more time with your grandchildren?” The assumption there is that the older worker “can’t balance personal and professional, like we’ve done our entire lives,” Vanderburg said.

“Are you an intern?”

Even if you are younger, you cannot escape ageism. Assumptions about your capabilities or seniority based on your age (or a younger appearance) can be rampant in the workplace, often undermining people’s skills.

This is especially true if you are a woman of color. In a 2023 Harvard Business Review article, researchers Amy Diehl, Leanne Dzubinski and Amber Stephenson surveyed 913 women leaders who worked in higher education, at faith-based nonprofits, and in law and health care about the different types of bias they may have experienced in their careers. Younger women under 40 reported receiving age-based comments that infantilized them and discounted their expertise.

“They reported being mistaken for students, interns, trainees, support staff, secretaries, paralegals, and court reporters. Such inaccurate assumptions were especially prevalent for non-white women,” the researchers wrote.

Stephenson, one of the study’s researchers, previously told HuffPost that questions like “How could you possibly understand at your age?” can also be sending a message to younger women that “you haven’t paid your dues.”

Many employees hold inaccurate beliefs about age in the workplace.
Catherine Falls Commercial via Getty Images
Many employees hold inaccurate beliefs about age in the workplace.

There are limiting beliefs that motivate a lot of this ageist language.

Beyond rude, nosey questions, there are widely-held beliefs that influence whether or not you are ageist. See if you’ve internalized any of these attitudes.

The mistaken idea that ‘younger equals better’

When you think of hiring someone with “fresh ideas,” who do you picture? Too often, only youth is associated with creativity, enthusiasm and energy.

“Older people can have fresh ideas,” Gendron said. “Just because you’ve been doing it a while doesn’t mean that you don’t have the capacity to think of new ways of doing things.”

Gendron said relational ageism is “anytime that we are using the word ‘young’ and ‘old’ with judgment.” She said supposed co-worker compliments, like that a haircut “makes you look younger,” feed the “ageist narrative, that in order to be successful, in order to be happy, we need to look, feel, act younger.”

The young ‘digital native’

Alison Chasteen, a social psychologist who researches ageism, said younger people get stereotyped as being most familiar with current technology, even when that is not necessarily the case.

You can see that in job listings that ask for applicants to be “digital natives.” “‘Digital native’ is basically a code word for I want someone younger,” Vanderburg said.

The generational bias that lumps different people together

There is a multimillion-dollar industry that spreads beliefs that Millennials all think and work one way, and Gen Z all think and work another, but age researchers say this is a harmful myth. “You cannot tell somebody’s characteristics based on when they were born,” Gendron said.

Vanderburg said the idea that people in the same generation have the same traits makes no more sense than “deciding to manage someone based on their horoscope.”

Instead, Vanderburg said it is more useful to group employees’ needs based on their current life stage. For example: “If you are caregiving, whether it’s for younger children, older family members [or] older friends, you have a lot more in common than someone who’s not a caregiver,” she said.

Because it can be so easy to categorize people, Gendron recommended taking a moment to question your generational assumptions next time you judge a 20-year-old colleague, for example.

“Find out more about them individually, rather than letting your assumptions be driven by their age. Age really doesn’t tell us a whole lot about someone,” she said.

The patronizing ‘elder-speak’

Don’t change the cadence and tone of your voice with older people. Chasteen said there is a benevolent ageism called “elder-speak” that happens when people use a sing-song voice and simplified speech.

Vanderburg said she often sees condescending elder-speak used in healthcare settings and in coffee shops: “Somebody may look at someone older and go, ’Oh hey, sweetie, here’s your latte. [It’s] just like, ‘Sweetie who?’”

In the workplace, this attitude can lead to too many offers of unwanted help, like asking, “Are you sure you are up to taking that on?” This sends the underlying message that the older colleague is not capable of making their own decisions, Chasteen said.

“It can be really this insidious form of prejudice, because it can chip away at your sense of self-esteem and your sense of competence that you can take on a task, and it might dissuade you from maybe trying new things,” she said.

Ultimately, stopping ageism means learning to understand when you are part of the problem. Gendron pointed to a simple flowchart she made to clarify what it is and is not ageist. The first question you ask yourself is: “Is age a factor in what I am about to say or do?” If the answer is no, you likely aren’t being ageist.

But if you answer yes, do one more gut check and ask yourself: “Am I making an assumption or judgment based on age?”

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