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US Culture Shift: Respect for Elders

Forget 'golden' years, new watchwords for retirement become 'productive' and 'successful'

By Sara Terry GabrelsSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 8, 1998

In case you weren't aware, the term "senior citizen" is out. So is "golden age." "Elderly" isn't a first choice either.

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What's in? "Older adults" or "aging adults" - especially if the latter refers to "productive" or "successful" aging. And "elder" carries with it an increasingly popular cachet of its own - one that evokes wisdom and respect.

It's not just names that are changing, say experts on aging. As America stands on the brink of an unprecedented boom in the number of citizens over the age of 65, the way older adults view themselves - and are viewed by society - is undergoing a profound cultural transformation. It is one that has broad implications for everything from the way these adults are portrayed in the media to the roles they carve out for themselves in leading productive, engaged lives that will redefine not only the meaning of retirement, but what it means to grow older in the new millennium.

"There are a large number of pioneers who are recasting and reshaping and rethinking the life course," says Scott Bass, a gerontologist and dean of the graduate school at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has focused on the idea of productive aging. "They are ... defining what's called the 'third age.' "

Although stereotypes persist - views that depict older Americans as a drain on resources or as being inevitably diminished by age - increasingly, myths and images of aging are being shattered.

Demographics of the elders

Today, there are some 35 million Americans who are 65 years of age or older, up from just 3.1 million at the turn of the century. They currently make up 13 percent of the population, a figure that is projected to rise to 20 percent by the year 2030 (for a total of some 70 million elder Americans).

As they live longer, healthier lives, many of these older citizens are also refusing to accept old models of leisure time and retirement. Many of them are insisting on continuing to live productive lives, either through long careers or part-time work or volunteer activities. It's a trend, say gerontologists, that will only gain momentum as baby boomers "come of age" as elders.

"We'll have more respect as elders," says Jill Grigsby, a gerontologist at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., and a baby boomer. "We'll have the numbers, but as we get older, we will have more economic resources too."

"One of the advantages of being a baby boomer is that advertising tends to follow you," she says. "As baby boomers age, older people will become less invisible because there's so many of us. We'll see images of aging become more dominant."

Much of the current discussion about aging - and how to describe those who are redefining it - focuses on words like "successful" and "productive."

According to one recent study, 5.4 million older Americans were ready and able to go back to work in 1994. And though gerontologists say age discrimination continues to be a challenge in the workplace, they note that many employers are beginning to realize that older workers can be a valuable resource. Mr. Bass of the University of Maryland says that when he met with a group of Fortune 500 company leaders recently, he found their human resource executives much more open to hiring "mature" workers.

"We're still a youth-oriented society, and the bulk of employers are still looking for younger workers," he says. "But there's a much greater sensitivity [to age] across the board. We're in a transition period."