Language of Aging

The percentage of people age 65 or older is growing and so is sensitivity about how to refer to the growing population cohort.People are sensitive about aging, which is reflected in their sensitivity to the language used to describe them.

Census projections indicate one-fifth of the U.S. population will be 65 or older by 2030 and market data says people 50 or older account for a whopping 50 percent of all U.S. consumer spending. That has heightened awareness of how to refer to this growing and gainful cohort of people.

It seems the number of acceptable terms is shrinking.

NPR's Ina Jaffe explored the topic, noting references such as "elderly" and "senior citizens" can cause offense. The over-65 crowd now includes Baby Boomers who largely hold the view they aren't "old." They blanch at the term elderly, which implies impairment, not an active lifestyle.

"They feel young. They act young. They enjoy life, and they want to go through it focusing on living," Ann Arnof Fishman, president of Generational Targeted Marketing, told Jaffe.

"Golden years" is another problematic reference, Jaffe says. She calls this a remnant from the 1950s when attempts were made to idealize retirement.

"Successful aging" is irritating, according to Jaffe, because it makes aging feel like an SAT test.

"Our seniors" suggests a patronizing tone. Who says "Our middle-aged working adults?"

"Older adults" begs the question of older than what.

"Silver tsunami" is dramatic, but misleading. Growing numbers of people 65 or older reflect a well-known democratic trend caused by people living longer.

That leaves precious few descriptive choices. The best path may be to use the most literal description possible — give people's age or age cohort — and let people ascribe what they will to that age.