Have you ever thought about age-based microaggressions?

Microaggression | mi·cro·ag·gres·sion
a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group

Last fall I was on a call with a client preparing for an upcoming workshop. I asked them to share examples of age or generational challenges from their organization. They collected anonymous input from their employees on the subject, and as they shared the results, a theme emerged; seemingly little things that were resulting in ongoing significant tension. One example was from a young female employee who reported her older male boss addressed all emails to her team “Dear Girls” or “Hey Kids”.

As we talked more, I realized these were age-based microaggressions. Most of what we hear about microaggressions tends to focus on how they occur related to differences in race or sexual orientation. But, they can exist around any marginalized group. Can you think of others?

Psychology Today defines a microaggression as, “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.”

A quick search found very little out there written about age-based microaggressions. I found a few short pieces and a very well-done piece in The Gerontologist (specifically about age-related microaggressions against older adults) but not much else.

So let’s get into it here. I’ve been on a bit of a mission to collect examples since this showed up on my radar screen several months ago. I’ve brought it up in a few interviews I’ve done. I’m also trying to drop the term into more conversations to spur discussion.

Here are a few examples of age based microaggressions from my current collection:

“Hi Girls…” (or “Hey kids…”)

“You’re so hardworking (for your age)”

“Maybe we shouldn’t give that project to John, he might have trouble learning the new technology.”

A job ad that wants to hire a “recent college grad.”

Calling older people “hun” or “adorable”

Saying an older job applicant wouldn’t be a good “cultural fit.”

According to Kevin Nadal, professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, “The difference between microaggressions and overt discrimination or macroaggressions, is that people who commit microaggressions might not even be aware of them.”

First, let’s set the stage for the different ways microaggressions can surface. Microaggressions can take 3 three forms:

Age Based Microaggression 1: The Microassault

Overt and deliberate, subtle or explicit, these often take the form of biased attitudes or behaviors.  Microassaults are intentional and convey the message that members of the group in question are “lesser” in some way.

I’ll lead with an obvious one here…OK Boomer?

Back in 2019, I wrote a piece for NBC News on the impact of OK Boomer, not just on those it is said to, but its overall impact on preventing Gentelligence in how we frame intergenerational collaborations.

We can also substitute “entitled Millennial”, “Gen Z snowflake”, or “Gen X slacker” for “OK Boomer”. They all make the same point.

Age Based Microagression 2: The Microinsult

These are messages that are more subtle or indirect than a microassault, but still intend to deliver a clear message of rudeness or play into tired stereotypes or tropes, resulting in an insult to the group in question.

Are you an intern?

You must be about ready to retire, huh?

or “You’re about the same age as my granddaughter!”

Job listings that state the company is “looking for a youthful, energetic, agile worker to join our team.” may be embedding microinsults right into their job search process. Speaking more slowly (or more loudly) to older employees is another example of a microinsult. The Journal of  Nonverbal  Behavior found that younger people speak more slowly and in high-pitched voices when addressing older people than when talking to younger ones.

Age Based Microaggression 3: The Microinvalidation

This type is are often even harder to detect, but the key element here is “invalidation“. Any messaging or cues that undermine or try to negate the experience or viewpoints of an age-based group as not accurate, relevant, important, or valid would fit under the umbrella of microinvalidation.

A senior partner taking undeserved ownership of the work or ideas of a younger associate (while common in many corporate cultures) may qualify as an age-based microinvalidation, especially if others are aware of who did the work and also do not speak up.

Another example of microinvalidation toward younger people?

“You’re too young to be a ______” (insert respected position here: doctor, vice president, astrophysicist, manager…).

Microinvalidations toward older people often involve negating issues of age discrimination as a misunderstanding or a joke. Other examples might involve brushing off their input as lacking relevance because “they won’t be here much longer”.

Do age based microaggressions really matter? Yes.

Research suggests that those who experience microaggressions can experience substantial negative outcomes. These can range from poorer physical health, increased anxiety and stress, decreased in self-esteem, as well as loss of trust. We know that poorly managed generational and age diversity can damage teams, prevent succession planning, decay employee engagement, and lead to higher turnover.

Microaggressions of any kind keep us in the tired space of generational and age-based tension and bias and prevent us from realizing the benefits of Gentelligence. That is realizing complementary expertise and strengths, tapping into different information networks and types of knowledge, innovation, and better decision-making.

Gentelligence requires us to raise our awareness of the seemingly small but dangerous messages and actions of microaggressions from ourselves and from others. Here’s where we can lean into the wisdom of how to combat microaggressions against other kinds of differences. But we can also apply it to these age-based transgressions. Here’s my favorite strategy. I encourage you all to try it!

  • Can you help me understand what you mean by that?” This is my favorite strategy because “Can you help me understand” is already a golden phrase in Gentelligence work. It’s linked to Adjust the Lens (Gentelligence Practice #2) and uses the wonderful strategy of curiosity over judgment, which is more likely to keep everyone’s defenses down.

Them: “I’ll just never understand your generation.”

You:  “Can you help me understand what you mean by that?

According to HBR, “Acknowledge that you accept their intentions to be as they stated but reframe the conversation around the impact of the microaggression. Explain how you initially interpreted it and why. If they continue to assert that they “didn’t mean it like that,” remind them that you appreciate their willingness to clarify their intent and hope they appreciate your willingness to clarify their impact.”

I’m still studying this issue, so reach out with more examples if you have them!