As the first wave of the huge boomer generation marches toward retirement, a linguistic question looms large: What should we call those in their middle and later years? Baby boomers? Older people? Senior citizens? Elders?
That's the question facing journalists who write about retirement and aging. But the issue goes beyond the language those in the media use. The words we all choose to describe people in midlife and beyond – ourselves and others – help to define and shape attitudes about the later years, both positive and negative.
To gauge the opinions and preferences of reporters and editors, Paul Kleyman, national coordinator of the Journalists Exchange on Aging, devised a survey on style. Nearly 100 participants responded from a network of 900 journalists in all media who cover issues in aging at least part time.
Their top choice for a neutral and flexible general term to describe those in later life is "older," used to modify people, adults, individuals, or Americans.
The second most widely accepted group description for older people is "seniors," though journalists caution that it is not to be used to describe those younger than 65.
But users beware. Boomers is fine, according to many survey participants, but not baby boomers. ("They're not babies anymore," one respondent said.) Seniors is acceptable, but senior citizens shows up on the list of "mostly disliked" terms. "I don't have a problem with senior after the age of 70 or to get the senior discount when I'm 55," one columnist wrote.
"Elderly" is the word that grates the most. Elderly used as an adjective is acceptable, but the phrase "the elderly" comes under criticism for its "impersonal and stigmatizing manner" of grouping older people together with images of frailty and decline.
"Elders," on the other hand, can convey respect.
To describe those at the younger end of the spectrum, middle-aged and midlife make the list of preferred synonyms.
Age-specific references such as "those over 50" or "people 65 and up" also win approval among the journalists.
It's not just generational labels – nouns – that can convey negative images. Pesky little words, such as "still," as in, "still driving" or "still jogging," imply that these activities are something out of the ordinary, defying the norm.
Then there are the adjectives that are meant to sound complimentary but actually boomerang. Think of spry, perky, chipper, feisty, sweet, little, and grandmotherly. For one journalist responding to the survey, the cloying phrase "100 years young" represents the worst possible cliché about aging.
Even joking references to a "senior moment" can subtly suggest that the simple forgetfulness that can happen to anyone at any stage of life is somehow tied to aging.
And don't forget other stereotyping language that includes words such as geezers and oldsters.
Part of the challenge for everyone in choosing the right words involves the huge age span in America's graying population. It begins around 50 – the qualifying age to join AARP – and stretches to 100 or more. One marketing group in New York divides consumers into two groups – baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, and matures, born before 1946.
Yet some journalists in the survey criticized "mature" as one of those words so deliberately, self-consciously "correct" – striving for linguistic neutrality – that they can seem silly.
The search for better words goes on.
At AARP The Magazine, staff members favor a more playful approach to language. "We use the word grown-ups a lot," says editor Steven Slon. A feature called "Movies for Grownups" already exists, and editors are considering "Music for Grownups."
Mr. Slon thinks boomers may adopt words such as geezer with a measure of irony – "as long as you get the joke."
He also notes that the British tend to have "a zanier sense of humor," using words such as "wrinklies." But an official in the Department of Health in Britain has attacked the "demeaning and negative slang" that feeds a culture of ageism. As one example, he wants to ban doctors from referring to older patients as "crinklies" and "bed blockers."
So sensitive are some boomers about the images words convey that they don't even want to be called Grandma and Grandpa. They prefer something cooler and hipper, befitting their own more youthful status. Some are opting for Nana, Poppy, even Nina.
Sales clerks and waiters can also sound patronizing when they refer to older customers, usually women, as "dear."
Words matter. Whatever the choice of language, conveying a sense of dignity – which is sometimes hard for people to come by in their later years – represents a worthy goal.
As Slon says, offering a good reminder not only to journalists but to everyone, those who are older "don't want to be marginalized and put off in a category of people who simply get discounts but are not to be taken seriously."