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Wales is the first country in the UK to appoint an older people’s commissioner for Wales. We’ve had Children Commissioners for a long time and the Welsh commissioner has been in post for a number of years now. She has stated four key objectives as her commissioner priorities.
- Promoting and protecting older people’s rights
- Ending age discrimination
- Stopping the abuse of older people
- Enabling everyone to age well
Great priorities, but what practical work has she been doing? One of the things that really struck me was a document she wrote, ‘How to avoid ageism in communication, practical tips for professionals.’
In the introduction, she identifies that one in two people worldwide are ageist against older people, which I found completely extraordinary. Because media and communications has so much impact on attitudes then getting our communication right can be a critical way of shifting attitudes. She had a small number of interesting suggestions.
Using the right language and terminology
She identifies that we should avoid using terms like old person, elderly, pensioners, senior citizens or OAP and instead refer to older people or older adults. She highlighted some very negative terms that are frequently used which represent generalisations about older people: ‘demographic timebomb’, ‘silver tsunami’, ‘boomer’ and the frequent generalisation that older people are better off. All these things develop what she calls ‘othering’. A definition of ‘othering’ is using languase which can increase the sense of difference and division between groups of people in society. Othering can lead to inequality because people are excluded or dehumanised. One of the things to reduce othering is to avoid using pronouns like ‘they’ and ‘them’. This can portray older people as being a separate group that are not part of our society. Instead, she suggests that you replace ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘their’ with words like ‘we’ or ‘us’, so rather than saying ‘what older people need’, we might say ‘what we need when we’re older’. Very simple but requires a radical shift in attitude.
The way we frame our communications
We have choices about the way we describe the process of growing older and aging. Too often growing older is framed as something we should fear. There’s often disproportionate focus on ill health, frailty and decline. This does not reflect the experience of many older people. Similarly, older people are often presented as a financial and social burden even though this does not reflect the significant contribution older people make to society. Instead, we should focus more on ageing as something as part of our normal course of life course. Ageing is something we should all embrace. After all, growing older is the one thing that unites us all.
Living longer should be celebrated and the contributions the older people make, often through working longer, volunteering and caring, should be explicitly recognised.
Reflect the true diversity of older people and the breadth of experience we have as we get older
I was very struck by an experience I have had during my recent travelling in the U.S.A. The particular organisation that I was engaging with have many people in leadership positions making a substantial contribution from their late sixties into their mid-eighties. These people have supported the organisation, often, for 40 or 50 years, sometimes even longer and they can point to experiences they had in the immediate post-war era. This length of experience and continuing energy into their later years means they can make a huge contribution to shaping and empowering the organisation as it develops and grows. Yes, there are challenges: how do we, in an organisation where we have many people in senior roles into their seventies and eighties, continue to find important and valuable roles for people in their fifties and sixties. How do we maintain an intergenerational reach all the way down to those in their forties and fifties and their twenties and thirties. What struck me was how fit, healthy, energetic and mentally acute these people were into their mid-eighties.
Let us celebrate the process of becoming older. Let us celebrate the opportunities for us to do new things in a different way. Let us celebrate the release we have from many of the burdens that we may have experienced as parents or as people earlier in our careers. Let’s recognise that the struggles of youthful angst can be superseded by the confident wisdom of older people. Now we have an older future and a future when we are older, let’s focus on ‘Making Your Future Work’.
Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.