What is the right word to describe the 65+ demographic?
What do you call someone older than 65?
"Boomers," "old people," "senior citizens," "seniors," "elderly," and "golden-agers". These are just a few of the phrases that are commonly used to describe a generation of adults over 65. But often, adults in the 65+ age bracket don’t appreciate these terms being used.
People often don't like being called old, which is rooted in our society’s negative perception of aging. As a whole, American society is hyper-focused on youth, which is clear from constant messaging that revolves around ‘retaining a youthful glow,’ ‘reducing crow's-feet’ (and other signs of aging), and just generally ‘looking younger.’
The beauty industry relies on the fear of showing signs of aging, pushing hair dye to hide gray hairs and countless serums and lotions to keep skin looking smooth and wrinkle-free.
This is to our detriment, however, as older people have wisdom and perspective that can only be obtained through life experience.
It’s not like this everywhere. In other countries, there are far less negative connotations associated with getting older. In Korea, for example, respect for one’s elders is deeply ingrained in everyday life. Younger people have a duty to care for family members as they get older, and are socialized to show deference to all people older than them outside of the home as well.
In India, the elderly members of the family are decision-makers and heads of the household: "Advice is always sought from them on a range of issues, from investment of family money to nitty-gritties of traditional wedding rituals and intra-family conflicts. And this is not just passive advice; their word is final in settling disputes," Achyut Bihani wrote in Slate.
Multigenerational homes, in which the elderly cohabitate with and are cared for by family members, are also common in other countries.
According to a 2019 study conducted by the United Nations: “Living with a child or with extended family members was the most common living arrangement among older persons in Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean, whereas in Europe, Northern America, Australia and New Zealand, living with a spouse only was the most common arrangement, followed by living alone.”
How the perception on aging has changed
But, at Televeda, we would argue that times have changed. Today, people over the age of 65 are still working full-time jobs, traveling, meeting new people, working out, and spending money on experiences.
NPR's Ina Jaffe, the award-winning correspondent, has covered the 65+ demographic for decades, and in an interview with Scott Simon, she discusses the struggle to find the right word to describe older adults.
There's an increasing focus on independent living, active lifestyles, and overall health & wellness, unlike in the past when it was assumed that one would retire on their 60th birthday. "Since the early 20th century, we’ve added at least 30 years to the average life expectancy, and the language just hasn’t caught up with that," as Jaffe points out in her interview.
There is an incredible range in the experiences of people over 65. In many instances, older adults are still an active part of the workforce. According to the AARP, adults aged 65 and older are twice as likely to be working today compare with 1985—and overall, more likely to be earning more than their younger counterparts. That’s when those years of experience come in handy!
Seniors are mobile, too—and adventurous. The 65+ demographic is traveling in greater numbers than ever before, and a significant number even choose to spend retirement overseas. A 2018 study by the Aegon Center for Longevity and Retirement shows that at least 12 percent of Americans have considered living abroad in older age and retirement. In 2019, approximately 431,883 U.S. workers receiving Social Security benefits were living overseas, and that number only continues to grow.
And being over 65 is no longer synonymous with being a grandparent. Gen-X’ers and millennials are delaying parenthood in larger numbers, and as a result, the older generation can wait for grandkids well into their 70s or even 80s.
Where did 65 come from?
The incredible variety in the experience of people 65 and older just leads us to ask the question: how did 65 become the age when an adult becomes a “senior”, anyway?
It turns out that this age marker was created in 1935—at a time when life expectancy in the United States was far lower—in response to the passing of the Social Security Act of 1935. At the time, many scientists and doctors pushed for a more holistic consideration of old age, taking many factors—including family history, chronic health conditions, and economic status—into consideration. However, a more uniform approach won out, and 65 became the magic number.
What is the preferred term to use for the 65+ demographic?
These days, aging is not what it used to be. It’s true that people are living longer than ever before and the average life expectancy in some countries has increased significantly over time. So, what are the terms we should use to address this demographic of modern adults without giving offense?
Unfortunately, there isn't a correct answer but, based on a survey that Jaffe conducted on NPR's website, "seniors" and "senior citizens" could be discarded.
"Older adults" emerged as a phrase that is both acceptable and polite. Another term that Jaffe believes could catch traction is “super adult.” “Recently, someone I follow tweeted that she was buying tickets to a show in London, and instead of a senior discount, they used the term ‘super adult," said Jaffe.
At Televeda, we say: why not just call them adults? As the world has changed and people have evolved, so too has how we perceive aging. The days of considering adults over 65 as old are gone, which is why it’s important to consider stopping the usage of labels like “old” or “senior citizen.”
Plus, there will always be new generations coming up behind us with different perspectives on how society thinks about aging. What's your opinion on aging?