Talking about Age in the Media

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Everyone wants to live longer, but no one wants to be old. –Harry Moody, director of academic affairs for AARP (2012).

To me – old age is always ten years older than I am. –Bernard Baruch, American financier (1870-1965).

About forty-two million Americans are 65 years or older. Advertisers, politicians, and researchers often need to refer to this group, but finding a term that will not insult its members is not easy.

Various terms have been suggested with varying degrees of success. Elder, elderly, senior, and retiree are the most common.

In Canada, according to what I’ve read in forums, the term elder has connotations of venerable age and wisdom; in the United States, however, people tend to associate elder with disapproving church elders or the word elderly. The decline of the acceptability of the word elder is illustrated by the name change of a travel organization established in 1975 for active Americans 60 and older. The parent organization is still called Elderhostel, but in advertising, the program is now known agelessly as “Road Scholar.”

Even the word retiree is heavy with the connotations of age. These days, the American Association of Retired People (founded 1958) goes by its initials only: AARP.

When politicians talk about “our seniors” in the same breath as “our children,” mature adults understandably bristle.

An article in The Senior Times says that the term “senior citizen” was coined in 1938 during a political campaign. Its use soars on the Ngram Viewer beginning in the 1940s. According to National Public Radio reporter Ina Jaffe, “senior citizen” is a term that “seems to annoy just about everyone.”

Recognizing the minefield of age and terms relating to it, The AP Stylebook has this entry for the word elderly:

Use this word carefully and sparingly. Do not refer to a person as elderly unless it is clearly relevant to the story. It is appropriate in generic phrases that do not refer to specific individuals: concern for the elderly, a home for the elderly, etc.

If the intent is to show that an individual’s faculties have deteriorated, cite a graphic example and give attribution for it. Use age when available and appropriate.

Apply the same principle to terms such as senior citizen.

Age is one of the realities of life that our culture prefers to deny. It’s unlikely that any term can be found to refer to old people that would not be offensive to someone because in our culture, old age itself is seen as offensive.

Perhaps the safest course is to refer to the intended age group in numeric terms:
between the ages of 65 and 75
above the age of 65

Colloquial synonyms for “old person” range from friendly to deliberately hurtful, for example:

Although the word codger (like coot) usually has a negative connotation, this review about Dick Van Dyke in the Chicago Tribune (1992) makes a kind of compliment of it:

The wonderfully funny Dick Van Dyke, insufficiently honored in his prime, has now passed into the lovable-old-codger stage.

His comic gifts are sharper than ever, and he still dances with grace, style and a naughty insouciance. He is much too good for the quirky-old-coot roles that are his lot nowadays.

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7 thoughts on “Talking about Age in the Media”

  1. The AP Style Guide shows a little hypocrisy on their part when it says to include age “when appropriate.” Editors there get angry when a reporter doesn’t get the age of someone they’ve interviewed, even if it was for a simple person-on-the-street quote and age is not a factor.

  2. “The older generation” seems to work well. Generally, I try to avoid subjective terms and use descriptive terms instead. For example, I might write “The 65+ age group” or “people over age 65.”

    My mother, age 81, would be upset if called “elderly” and might chase you down with her car. Of course, then she would serve you pie and iced tea.

  3. Thank you for addressing this topic, as it has been a burr under my saddle for years. If someone is 80, just write 80. If you don’t know a person’s age, omit it entirely. I included my feelings in my Twitter profile. ‘Had four husbands ( one at a time); two sons (one at a time); attended six colleges and universities ( graduated from two); I’m considered elderly (bad word).’

    Keep spreading the word.

  4. Alas, Ina Jaffe’s decree that the term “senior citizen” is annoying to just about everyone is baseless and honestly appears to be pandering to a bloated sense of ultra political correctness simply for the sake of appearing righteous. We have senior citizen centers, we have senior citizen discounts, we have senior citizen communities, etc. How much more polite could that term be? Plain old “seniors” works without anyone taking offense, too. My uncle, 76, refers to himself as “the old bastard.” Good for you, uncle. I wouldn’t put that in an article and certainly no one would refer to an orthopedic swim class for seniors as “old coots in a pool” but straining and worrying about how precisely to be utterly inoffensive at all costs can result in some overly bulky and obnoxious prose. Just like this. I’ll make a deal, though. As soon as I find one senior citizen who objects to that term, I won’t use it around that person anymore.

  5. I agree with Mike Rose. There’s nothing offensive about “seniors” or “senior citizens.” I’m happy to patronize stores that offer senior discounts, and don’t mind if the checkout person asks if I qualify. Yesterday, a tactful young man asked, “Any discounts?”

  6. If we want to talk about people above 65 why not just say, “We’re talking about people above 65.”? What’s this hangup on naming groups of people? I’m not old or elderly. I’m not a senior (but I was, once, in high school), but I am a retireee, but a lot of people my age aren’t. And a lot of people younger and older than me are. But, I am a grumpy, whiny, old man that thinks this is a bunch of bull puckey.

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