While employed in the office of a state senator, Alice Fisher sometimes felt out of place. "I was working with people who were younger than my children," says Fisher, who's now 69.
As an older worker, she was able to hold her own, but she still sometimes felt like the office mom and heard her share of unconsciously ageist statements, says Fisher, who founded the Radical Age Movement, a national group seeking to raise awareness of and confront ageism.
Comments that referenced her age weren't meant to hurt her, but they made her feel as if her co-workers thought of her as out of touch or slow. "I might have been the slowest to grasp new technology, but I always did," she says.
Fisher isn't the only worker dealing with generational differences in the workplace. As more employees delay retirement and many offices knock down walls between more seasoned workers and incoming youngsters, it's increasingly important to interact sensitively with co-workers from across the generational aisle. While the Age Discrimination in Employment Act prevents workers from discriminating against employees or applicants over 40 because of the number of candles on their birthday cake, some age-related jabs are legal -- and can erode confidence, performance and morale all the same.
"I think language is powerful," says Tracey Gendron, an assistant professor in the department of gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University. "These words actually make a huge difference; they do."
So, before you lovingly call your older mentor "gramps" or tell a longtime employee that she's shockingly quick at learning the new computer software, stop yourself. Here are four unconsciously ageist phrases to nix from your vocabulary.
1. "You're overqualified." This statement, typically lobbed at job applicants, "is almost always code for 'You're too old,'" says Joanna Lahey, associate professor at Texas A&M University and expert on age discrimination and the relationship between age and labor market outcomes. Experienced applicants may also hear "you'll never take the salary" or "it's a revolving door around here" when they're about to be passed over for a job, Fisher says.
While it's illegal not to hire someone because of age, this verbal workaround is generally accepted. "Saying someone's overqualified won't stand up in a court of law as being ageist," Lahey says. But the problem with this statement is that it doesn't give candidates a chance to address the problem and show how they'd succeed at the job. Says Lahey: "People aren't given the choice."
2. "Don't worry, you don't need to take that computer training class." Employees should avoid the assumption that older workers are technological dinosaurs who can't learn new skills.
Seasoned employees are assumed to be "adverse to change, that they won't take on new technologies," says Jessica Kriegel, author of "Unfairly Labeled: How Your Workplace Can Benefit From Ditching Generational Stereotypes." "But it's often older workers who are implementing the changes to the technology."
And when managers don't make training accessible to older workers, it can harm their professional qualifications. "When they're not offered training, their skills start to deteriorate and that's a self-fulfilling prophesy," Lahey says.
3. "When are you going to retire?" This is one of Fisher's least favorite sayings, she says. "That is something that comes up and you just seethe inside," Fisher says.
Longtime employees may have no desire to retire because they find their career rewarding or they can't afford to stop working. You don't know -- so don't assume. Plus, that assumption excuses employers for not prioritizing an older worker's on-the-job education and assumes that the worker has limited investment in the company and its future.
4. "Baby boomers are ... " When it comes to any generational group, both old and young, Kriegel recommends moving away from generational labels that paint any age group in a certain way. "There's an association with the word 'boomers,' that they're out of touch, tech-adverse, whatever it is," she says. She finds the same issue with labels for young professionals, too. For example, employees may see millennials as entitled or easily bored.
"The label itself isn't bad. It's the way we use it," she says.
And something to keep in mind, Gendron says, is that mistreating older workers may come back to haunt younger colleagues. When employees don't value experienced workers in the job market, Gendron says, "We're really discriminating against our future self."
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