It used to be easy to categorize people by their age alone. The label "senior citizen" was bestowed on anyone turning 65, maybe because that's the age when most people used to retire.
Someone born between 1946 and 1964 was a baby boomer, and then there are the middle-age folks -- whatever that means.
But when the first boomers turned 65 in 2011, they bristled at being called "senior citizens."
"The words traditionally that we've used for aging and older people don't reflect the way many of us are living now," says Ina Jaffe, a correspondent for NPR whose beat is aging. Jaffe recently asked her listeners for their views on terms used to describe older adults (nwsdy.li/npr-aging).
"Elderly" was most disliked, along with, not surprisingly, "geezer" and "old-timer." As for terms that were acceptable, "older adults" was No. 1, but without much enthusiasm. Only 43 percent of NPR listeners who responded liked it. "People basically didn't like anything," Jaffe says.
And don't even think about returning to the gold standard. "Nobody talks about the golden years anymore," Jaffe says. In the past, "gold" or "golden" was affixed to terms to describe older people, be it golden-agers or golden years. But while gold is a tarnished word for boomers, one precious metal may still be in the running.
"I kind of see the term 'golden' being replaced by 'silver,' " says Kevin Williams, president of seniormarketing.com, a company whose clients are primarily senior living communities. Indeed, the wave of boomers heading into their 60s and beyond has captured the often-used term "silver tsunami."
While they hate being called
"seniors," boomers still accept -- and many even love -- being called baby boomers, Williams' research shows. "They have negative feelings toward the word senior," he says. "I don't know if it's just at their stage in life now or if it will carry with them as they get older."
For Williams, the wrong words could mean lost customers. "Retirement home" is despised because it raises the specter of the much-feared and loathed nursing home. But "retirement community" is looked upon favorably. And although many restaurants, movie chains and supermarkets offer "senior discounts" to people as young as 55, the term is objectionable to boomers, even if they begrudgingly accept the savings.
Williams is unsure if boomers will ever acquiesce to the term "seniors."
Perhaps 20 years from now, after businesses and marketers adjust, an 85-year-old shopper will happily display his "silver baby boomer discount card" while his 64-year-old Generation X daughter cringes at the thought.
SHARE YOU THOUGHTS What's the best term to use when referring to anyone 50 or older? Email your suggestions to act2@newsday. Include your name and phone numbers.