Young-splaining old age to old people

Cartoon of young woman explaining something to two old people.
Young-splaining is a poor way to tackle ageism

What’s wrong with this conversation? It’s young-splaining old age to old people. And that’s a rubbish way to combat ageism.

Here we are, two white-haired women in our gym gear after a tough Pilates class. Each with extraordinary stories. Each having taught, entertained and performed to thousands of people around the world in our lifetimes. Not superstars, but well travelled, respected in our fields, and still in demand professionally. Which is all pretty common in the generation now in our 70s and 80s.

Along comes a younger woman who we both know slightly. Maybe she’s in her late 40s. I can’t remember how the subject came up but almost immediately she said words to this effect, speaking with great authority:

“Young people don’t realise that old people are worth talking to. Many old people have very interesting stories to tell! And some of them can tell their stories well! They have to tell them well: it’s no good if they can’t tell them well. And I could show you old people who are strong and fit, even though they are very old! They still go to the gym!”

A younger woman

(Exclamation marks are deliberate. All these things surprised her.)

I had great trouble disguising my astonishment and my amusement. But it’s not polite to interrupt and scream, “Whaaaat? Shut up! Who do you think you’re talking to? A twelve-year-old? Can’t you see right under your nose two old people with interesting stories and who tell them eloquently in books and shows and workshops and lectures, and are strong and fit and go to the gym etc etc? And for heck’s sake, what’s unusual about that? Are all of us interesting old people really that invisible? Anyway, who made you an authority on old age? We’re the experts, not you! And who said we have to tell our stories well? You obviously wouldn’t listen anyway.”

How to respond to the ageism of young-splaining

This sort of youngsplaining has happened to me so often that it is definitely a Thing. As in “Oh, here we go again. What bonkers thing will they ear-bash me about next?”

This youngsplaining mystifies me. But, to be a little kinder, it may arise from a genuine attempt to understand aging, an attempt to overcome their own fear and ageism. And after all, in our 40s we really do know a little bit more about aging than we did at 20.

So what should I say next time?

  • “Tell me about it!” (Sarcastically)
  • “Tell me more: this is all news to me”. (Innocently)
  • Something else?

36 thoughts on “Young-splaining old age to old people

  1. josaiawrites says:

    There are so many different forms of ageism. Some overt and insulting. Some covert and patronizing. Some projections of fears. (Projectile dysfunction.). Each presents its own challenges in terms of how to respond. Sometimes I get angry… The insults. Sometimes I get frustrated. And sometimes I want to look someone in the eyes and ask….”Would you like to hear how I feel about that?” although I’m not sure I would be listened to or really heard. I’m still trying to figure it all out here! But I’m so appreciative of how we’re all working to name this more, in all of its forms. You can’t fight something that you can’t t name.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I liked finding a label for this generic conversation. P.S. You were quick off the mark!

  2. Sadje says:

    Haha! I like your proposed responses.

  3. cedar51 says:

    what I hate is “you’ve doing so well, for your age” or “it’s because of your age that…” or “you shouldn’t do that at your age”
    And then the reporter writes in the paper, elderly person of 45!!!
    I’m actually not that old in terms of so many who are a decade or more older than me, I’m still very much an apprentice in my 70s.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Yes. All a bit weird.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Interesting, Rachel, as always. I had my first experience of being entirely invisible at a BBQ about two years ago. A dear friend in her late 40’s invited me and hubby to the BBQ. She’d also invited a friend of her own age, husband and their young boy. The men gathered at the BBQ as a way to connect and my friend and her friend chatted in the kitchen and I appeared to be invisible. I’m not a shy reserved person and mix easily with a wide range of people, but this other woman was determined that I was invisible. After dinner we played a game (I can’t recall what it was), but I partnered their young boy and he loved me, as I upped his chances of winning. Suddenly I was visible. But they knew zilch about me from that night. On the way home in the car, I thought about it and realised, I’d done that myself, I am sure, many years ago, disregarded an older person in a social situation (possibly more than once) – it came to me as a bolt of recognition… and too, I hate being called ‘dear’… and it’s not just handsome young male waiters, but young women, who insist on calling me dear. I know I never did that to older people. I’ve never called anyone dear, unless they were very dear to me and if they were, I’d have used their name… I think you need to draw this woman (next time you see her) into your confidence about your upcoming play and suggest she might enjoy it…

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Awareness is a great advantage in this case — as always. I often ask myself, What’s happening? (Youngsplaining.) Does it matter? (Right now, no, although big picture, yes.) Is it funny? Yes.

  5. Cathy Cade says:

    (eyes wide open in surprise.)
    Yes, I suspect it’s fear.
    She’s suddenly realised it’s going to happen to her (if she’s lucky). She’s giving you her new thoughts in the hope you will confirm them and reassure her.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Such a kind interpretation. I like it.

  6. Sheree says:

    Incredible and somewhat frustrating! But I loved your response.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Just in my imagination, of course.

  7. It was so much easier “in the old days”. You could have challenged her to a duel!
    Seriously, it is tempting to challenge such interactions directly with a statement such as “Do you realise how condescending that sounds?” However, we are far too polite to say such a thing. Or are we?

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I need to pick my battles. Which for me tends to mean, shut up and run away. Rachel must try harder! I will use a Really???? older-and-wiser look. Will that do?

      1. That’s always a good option, which our late HM The Queen was very good at. So go for that but with a regal look as you depart!

  8. VJ says:

    Hahaha, this made me laugh. We currently have a 64 year-old Ukrainian living with us (my twin, as I like to call her). A friend of hers walked her home from work the other day, and commented on the fact that she lives in the old folks community. “Everyone is over 55” her friend explained. Our guest could barely hold her laughter as she burst through the door announcing that her friend is 58.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      This is ridiculously common and is a perfect example of how difficult it is for us to understand that we are not exempt from old age 🙂

  9. Alan Ralph says:

    I’d never heard the term ‘youngsplaining’ before today. And the spell-check in my browser is turning its nose up at it too. What a strange thing to say out loud. I would have given her a hard stare in the style of Paddington Bear. I suspect such statements come from insecurity and worry about old age, perhaps forgivable since society places such a premium on youth and disdain for the ageing process.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Yes. The hard stare. I’m gonna work on that.

  10. LA says:

    Honestly? Ignore that. Take it as a compliment that you’re so fit and alert no one would consider you old. Women in their forties and fifties are totally disregarded by others as well. Plus, the woman could have been older than late forties.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      This is a moment when I say, You had to be there. And hear the tone of voice 🙂 Thanks for another way to look at it.

      1. LA says:


  11. Age is a state of mind and we old fogies have a responsibility to share our experiences, humor and wisdom with the next generations. I’m almost 81 and I’m still here, so I try to make the best of it.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Sure, and we do… and we choose our confidants with care.

  12. Thoughts include: it appears this woman was speaking ‘at’ you rather than ‘to or with’ you. So it was never intended to be a discussion or inclusive sort of interaction IMHO. My personal go-to term to use in sticky age related situations are variants on the word ‘generation’…as in: We’re of different generations, how do you see it? Or I’m of the generation before you, this is how I’ve experienced X,Y,Z.
    Anyway, just thoughts off the top of my head.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Spot on, Laura! It was a lecture. And I love your suggestion. Questions are a safe and interesting way to go. In this case I wouldn’t have known where to start!

  13. I haven’t thought about the concept of “young-splaining,” but now that you’ve illuminated it, Rachel, I recognize it. I’d be tempted to say something like, “Of course, you know you’re preaching to the choir. We are two vibrant, active older women whose stories would fascinate and amaze you … but we’ve got places to be right now, so perhaps another time.” (Exit stage left)

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s a nice exit line—thanks!

  14. Mr. Wapojif says:

    I’m 38 and just take the “I am an idiot” stance with most things, so hopefully I don’t do this to older generations. I certainly try not to presume to know what it must be like to be 50, 60+ etc.

    From my side, my generation takes a battering for being “woke snowflakes” and “lazy”, so I think it’s something that needs a balance of appreciation of what all ages can bring to life.

    What I’ve learned so far is tea, slippers, and reading are the most important things ever.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I know, we old people are only too happy to tell the younger ones what they are like and how they could do better! It’s horrible. I must hold that thought. When our roles are reversed, it’s mainly funny to me because it’s so odd. And here’s to bare feet, coffee, and reading 🙂

  15. Paul says:

    I do feel both sorry for and amused by the presumptive young’uns who think they know so much yet know so little. I can easily forgive them their occasional audacity for of course someday, as the old memento mori says, they shall be as I am today.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That is beautifully expressed, thank you Paul.

  16. judithhb says:

    Occasionally somebody has said to me, you’re how old? My response is always if you’re lucky one day, you might get to be as old as me unfortunately that stops the conversation, but I refuse to be invisible, another good post, thank you Rachel

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I think you have considerable poise, Judith 🙂

  17. Lois Roelofs says:

    I can just picture you at a loss for words over such a monologue. I’m thinking I may want to say, facetiously, “Well, tell what you REALLY think.” Smile on!

  18. Elizabeth says:

    There is another meaning of youngsplaining which I really appreciate. It is when my grandchildren explain what words they are using mean. Fortunately they have been raised around both sets of grandparents so it never occurs to them to be rude.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That is adorable!

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