October 2020

The hidden language of ageism

Ageism in the UK is deep-rooted in the way people talk to and about older people. At Legal & General we want to tackle ageism, and we’re starting with language

Older and younger women talking outside

The UK’s ageing population means we’re increasing likely to engage with and have conversations about this demographic. But the language we as society are using is problematic and one of the biggest contributors to the deep-rooted, and often subconscious, ageism that exists in the UK today.

In using ageist language, we are defining people not only by their age, but by stereotypes associated with it. For example, telling someone that they look great for their age might seem like a compliment, but behind that well-intended statement is the fact that we expect a person of a certain age to look less good.

In Age UK’s Index of wellbeing, meaningful engagement has been identified as the most important aspect of enjoyment of life for older people. A significant part of engagement is social interaction, but if the way we’re interacting with this demographic is in fact detrimental to their happiness, then we need to act – now.

To find out first hand how ageist language affects those at the heart of society, we spoke to a number of residents from our Inspired Villages communities. We asked them what sort of language people should use when speaking to older people, to which Inspired Villages resident John responded: “Why should it be any different to how they speak to someone else? Why should we be treated any differently? There’s no reason at all. We’re the same people.” 

Young people shouldn’t speak to us any differently than they would to their own friends.”

Inspired Villages Resident

Veronica, another Inspired Villages resident, said: “Young people shouldn’t speak to us any differently than they would to their own friends. They shouldn’t respect me just because I’m older than them.” In other words, without truly understanding the impact of language, even acting with the best intentions can cause offence.

How we use language

Recognising the value in language isn’t just about the words we use – it’s how we use them. Jill, who suffers from dementia, told us: “You don’t have to shout at me – I’m not deaf. But younger people do often speak very fast which can make it difficult to keep up, so speaking a bit slower would help.”

By educating ourselves about appropriate language, we open up the window of opportunity for conversations with people who have had exciting life experiences. “There are people who think we’re so old that we can’t possibly contribute anything or know anything, but we do,” says John. “We’ve lived through lots of things, so we have a lot of experience.”

Cadbury’s has recently launched the next iteration of its campaign with Age UK, in a video encouraging people to listen to what the older generation has to say. The people in the advert tell the viewer “don’t ask me if I’m cold” and “don’t ask me how I slept”, but request that we “ask [them] something interesting”, before hearing stories of a bodybuilding career, kissing the world’s most famous rockstar and experiencing the first Notting Hill Carnival.  In the words of our partner Royal Voluntary Service: “Age is just a number and people shouldn’t think they’re too old to do anything. This would give people access to lots of different ways to enjoy their life.”

The UK already has an ageing population, so tackling ageism must start today. And at Legal & General, we believe that to change the way we think about age, we must change the way we talk about it. Through language we can create meaningful interactions that stop making people feel less valued, unhappy and alienated, and instead build a better tomorrow where older people are at the heart of society – and know it.


We interviewed John, Veronica, Jill and Royal Voluntary Service as part of the STOPageism campaign, launched by Later Life community developer Guild Living, which aims to show how ageism negatively affects all of us and, most importantly, how we can stop it. Find out more about STOPageism here.

Older and younger women talking outside
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