Thursday, February 20, 2020
I talk to my students about the vocabulary of aging, and what to call clients. (We have also been talking about "Okay Boomer"). One student sent me this great article from The Atlantic, When Does Someone Become ‘Old’?It’s surprisingly hard to find a good term for people in late life.
Of course, calling someone old is generally not considered polite, because the word, accurate though it might be, is frequently considered pejorative. It’s a label that people tend to shy away from: In 2016, the Marist Poll asked American adults if they thought a 65-year-old qualified as old. Sixty percent of the youngest respondents—those between 18 and 29—said yes, but that percentage declined the older respondents were; only 16 percent of adults 60 or older made the same judgment. It seems that the closer people get to old age themselves, the later they think it starts.
Overall, two-thirds of the Marist Poll respondents considered 65 to be “middle-aged” or even “young.” These classifications are a bit perplexing, given that, well, old age has to start sometime. “I wouldn’t say  is old,” says Susan Jacoby, the author of Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age, “but I know it’s not middle age—how many 130-year-olds do you see wandering around?”
The article discusses the meaning of hte word "old" when applied to people, the meaning we already know.... According to the article, it appears as though we are moving to the use of the word "older"
So if 65-year-olds—or 75-year-olds, or 85-year-olds—aren’t “old,” what are they? As Jaffe’s phrasing suggests, American English speakers are converging on an answer that is very similar to old but has another syllable tacked on as a crucial softener: older. The word is gaining popularity not because it is perfect—it presents problems of its own—but because it seems to be the least imperfect of the many descriptors English speakers have at their disposal.
The article reviews other words we often use, such as elderly, senior and words of that ilk, and their lack of precision, or negative connotations. With this trend toward older as a modifier, we will probably start seeing the use of older person, older adult, older individual. But couldn't we use people-first language, using adult who is older, individual who is older, etc.? Why does there seem to be some consensus around the word "older"? I was amused by this:
Older may be catching on because it seems to irritate the smallest number of people. Ina Jaffe, the NPR journalist, found early on in her reporting on old age that people had strong reactions to the existing linguistic palette. Several years ago, curious to get a better sense of which terms people liked and which they didn’t, she helped arrange a poll on the NPR website soliciting opinions. Older adult was “the winner … though you can’t say there was any real enthusiasm for it among our poll takers. Just 43 percent of them said they liked it,” she explained on air. Elder and senior had roughly 30 percent approval ratings.
Another solution is to use an age range to refer to a person, such as "people age 50 and up". The article is excellent and I'm assigning it to my students. Take a look and see what you think. Oh and how about this, can we describe members of this cohort just as people?