Should language that offensively stereotypes older workers - terms like 'wrinkly' or 'coffin-dodger', for instance - become as taboo as words like 'sodomite' or 'coloured'? Silly as this question may sound, versions of it are highly likely to crop up in HR departments in the next few years as policies are rewritten in the light of forthcoming age discrimination legislation. I've been thinking about this for a week, and on reflection, after due consideration of the issues, I'm definitely in two minds.
On the one hand, it serves nobody to be too sensitive about ostensibly light-hearted terminology. Start shrieking 'ageism!' at 'wrinkly', and 'greybeard' will be next, followed swiftly by 'old-timer'. Those over-zealous e-mail filters are the curse of cyberspace, and the thought of sending ords into social quarantine and their users into social purdah is deeply depressing.
Besides, 'ageist' words seem harmless partly because they are so irredeemably naff; they carry none of the violent hatred of 'queer' or 'Paki', so why be so uptight? If HR departments start getting worked up about age-related language, they are going to have to start clamping down harder on 'useless old fool' than they do on 'useless fool', which does not make much sense. No organisation would want to move faster in its decisions about acceptable language for the workplace than society at large is really ready for. Banning things is great fun, of course, but maybe the discrimination industry should learn to live a little, or at least learn to let live.
On the other hand, prejudice is a denial of individuality, and age is no marker of competence. What is jokey in one context can quickly be switched into a nasty tool for demeaning someone in another. It is easy to imagine a person's working life being made wretched by constant barracking, taunts and sleights endured because they are older than others and therefore 'different'. If we are being consistent, then language suggestive of ageism ought to be treated in the same way as homophobic or racist language.
When the age discrimination law arrives next year, the potential compensation payouts at tribunal will be uncapped - just as they are with all the other equality laws. Social attitudes should try and reflect this legal consistency.
Terms associated with old age seem harmless now, but language evolves: 'lady' is no longer a mark of courtesy, but denotes either a bumbling misogynist or a lad on the pull. Ma