What do we call the old?

A New York Times magazine column by Jack Rosenthal tackles the search for a generic term to describe the enormous cohort of Americans over 65 — or whenever it is that oldness begins.

Harry (Rick) Moody, a scholar on the subject of aging, describes the great majority as the wellderly. ” But language has not yet caught up with life. Skilled people, near or at retirement age ” bridle even at inoffensive standbys like elders and older adults. An earlier generation found senior citizens acceptable, and senior as an adjective, as in senior vice president, remains so. But not as a noun, as in seniors. Why? Not out of denial or vanity but because the experience of older people shows that any such generalization ignites unthinking discrimination — what Dr. Robert Butler, the longevity authority, has indelibly labeled ageism. Somehow, even well-intentioned potential employers casually assume that age renders these folks — lawyers, teachers, writers, doctors, accountants, social workers — suddenly incapable of tasks more demanding than reading to third graders.

Forget retirees, not only in the context of this project but because older people reject its connotation of inactivity and uselessness. Recognizing that half its members are still in the workforce, the American Association of Retired Persons is now just AARP (a seal’s bark of a name that could still use some retooling).

Douglas Nelson, president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and a member of the Board of the National Academy on Aging, makes a case that veteranship conveys respect comparable to that accorded other stages of life. But that would make us all into veterans, confounding servicemen and pacifists alike. Third agers feels kind of  groovy. Perhaps it reminds me of replacing “third world” with “majority world”, a term I first heard used by Bangladeshis photojournalist Shahidul Alam and which is a superb example of the political power of language. But W. Andrew Achenbaum rebuts third agers, because it supports the disconnection that allows institutions and policies to “pit the interests of one cohort against another instead of synergizing people at various stages of the life course.” It’s part of Achenbaum’s larger argument that “the compartmentalization of the human life course to three boxes of life — education work and retirement — has become obsolete.” (p. 160)

Rosenthal posits that terms like those used by scholars: “the young old, 65 to 80; the old old, 80 to 90; the oldest old, 90 to 99; and centenarians . . . are apt to enter common usage as society faces up to the new age of age.” Those don’t exactly trip off the tongue, but at least they’re not euphemisms like “golden agers” or pained wordplay like “seasoned citizens.” The fact that no alternative to “senior citizen” has arisen suggests that we’re going to end up with a whole suite of terms to suit different purposes and constituencies. The medley of unsatisfactory names for committed unmarried partners (significant others, longtime companions, etc.) suggests that it can take language a long time to catch up with burgeoning social cohorts.

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