“the older I get the less I trust people” constructing age identities in the workplace

Jo Angouri


In 2006 laws banning age discrimination came into effect in the UK. Even though unions seem to suggest that ‘age’ is a very common form of discrimination, it does not typically attract (at least as yet) the same attention as other more widely discussed cases. Age discrimination is typically associated with discourses around an ‘ageing workforce’, however it affects both younger and older employees. Looking closer at ‘ageing’ discourses it becomes apparent that the boundaries between ‘old’ and ‘young’ are not as clear cut as a first reading would suggest. Further to this, recent sociolinguistic research has repeatedly shown that (age or other) identity is not something people ‘have’ or ‘are’ but something people ‘do’ (e.g., Holmes 2006; Coupland 2009). Accordingly, the aim of this paper is to discuss and problematise the ways in which employees construct age identities in the complex system of white-collar workplaces. The paper draws on recordings of real life routine meeting data featuring primarily employees in a small/medium enterprise (SMEs). Special attention is paid here to one member of the team, Cynthia the youngest member of staff. The discussion also draws on interview data in order to further analyse perceptions and representations of ‘age differences’ in this context. The analysis shows the complex process of negotiation of identity where chronological age is related to ‘expertise’ and ‘experience’ and becomes an important resource participants draw upon in the process of self -and other- positioning.

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