At AARP, the country’s largest membership organization, which represents the interests of retired people, they don’t use the term “senior citizen.”
“We use ‘seniors,’” says Barbara Shipley, AARP’s senior vice president of brand strategy. “Language can actually make people feel put in a box that they don’t put themselves in.”
But what about the word “citizens” boxes people in? It seems to have an outdated ring—a feel of fustiness, of old-timey formality, and perhaps, a whiff of condescension.
According to Kate de Medeiros, a professor of gerontology at Miami University in Ohio and a member of the North American Network of Aging Studies (NANAS) governing council, the term was coined in the 1930s as part of a campaign to convince older workers to retire and open up jobs for younger people. The term’s first noted appearance in print was in a 1938 Time Magazine article. U.S. Senator Sheridan Downey is quoted demanding pensions for “our senior citizens.”
One can’t help but feel that Downey’s inclusion of “citizen” there was a way of pandering, of plumping up the importance of a group that the political class was working to shut out of public life.
It’s no wonder the term turns people off these days, especially because the perception of aging has taken a 180-degree turn since the 1930s.
Putting Language About Aging in Context
The way we speak about aging is shifting in large part because the way we think about it is shifting. With people living longer, we spend more of our lives as “older” adults. In fact, people over 85 make up the largest growing segment of the U.S. population. And with advances in medical care and understanding about health, age no longer means the end of vigor and activity.
“If you can conceivably live a happier life after 50, it changes how we think about ourselves and the way we want other people to think about it,” says Shipley. “We are focused on understanding that the dynamics of aging have all changed. There isn’t one story of aging and retirement.”
She points to a recent AARP study of people over 50, in which 92% of respondents reported feeling that aging isn’t about getting old; it’s about living. Respondents said they prefer positive terms for aging, such as “mature” and “experienced.”
A Lack of Consensus About “Aging”
Notably, “Senior citizen” was not among the favorable terms the study respondents embraced. Besides feeling negative, the term is confusing: As a noun, it suggests an individual of a particular description, yet there’s no agreed-upon definition.
Merriam-Webster defines the term as an older adult, especially one age 65 or older.” But as demographic realities change, the question of who is “senior” or even “older” is up for debate.
Shipley suggests that “senior citizen” tends to be used to refer to those who are retired and probably on Medicare. But, she says, since half of Americans 65 and older are still working, it’s hard to put together cohesive definitions of aging-related terms.
One illustration of that came at meetings of the FrameWorks project that aims to shift attitudes toward aging, headed by the Gerontological Society of America, where a room full of experts could not agree on an answer to the question “What is aging?”
“Is it 65 and up? Now 65 is the new 55, so maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s 75 and up,” says Stephanie Lederman, executive director of the American Federation for Aging Research, who participated in the project. “We sat in a room looking at this topic with distinguished individuals in the field, and a lot of people had a lot of different opinions about ‘what is aging?’ I mean, aging begins at birth. Babies are aging.”
Aging Is Happening All the Time to Everyone
New thinking about how we speak and think about aging seeks to create inclusiveness when referring to the aging process.
“Using the more inclusive terms ‘we’ and ‘us’ in place of ‘they’ and ‘them’ helps all of us to remember that we are all aging,” says the website of the Reframing Aging initiative, a long-term social change endeavor put together by a number of organizations to counter ageism by changing the language around aging.
According to Shipley, AARP uses the following guidelines in their own writing and discussions of aging.
- Use categories for groups, not for individuals. Words like “seniors” or “older adults” can be useful in referencing demographic trends, such as the percentage of seniors who own their own homes. But they are not as good for talking about individuals, like “Alex, a senior, loves the early-bird special.” Identifying individuals by their age category often leads to making assumptions about people based on this one data point. If the relevant point you’re making is that Alex loves the early-bird special, simply saying that is sufficient.
- Use terms with context around them. AARP communicators use the term “older.” But whenever possible, they put it in context, for instance “older workers” or “older homeowners.” Only use such terms when the age of the people you’re discussing is relevant to your point. “It will almost always be accompanied by commentary or context or content about the value of their experience,” says Shipley. “It’s aligning what’s relevant to them, and not just their age.”
- Leverage the term multigenerational. Instead of picking seniors out as the subject of a sentence about their presence in spaces in society, reframe your language to refer to the range of age groups that are participating. The word “multigenerational” can do heavy lifting here. “We talk about a lot about multigenerational,” says Shipley. “We try to promote the value of a multigenerational workforce.”
Regardless of what language you prefer to use as you discuss aging and older adults, you’d be advised to leave the term “senior citizen” in the dustbin of time. Few seem to like it, and it doesn’t mean anything specific anyway.
“I would just say that people age. They don’t need to have a label,” says Lederman. “Starting from birth to older age, you’re just getting older. Get rid of ‘senior citizen.’”
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