No to ‘senior citizen,’ yes to ‘older adult’ or ‘retiree’

Aug 4th, 2021 | By | Category: Spotlight

There’s some debate on how society should describe the 55-and-older population, but there’s no consensus. From politics to the pandemic, when older adults come up in discussions of pressing issues, they’re labeled in ways that range from traditional (senior citizens) to respectful (mature adults) to Boomer.

To help figure out what older adults prefer, 600 of them were surveyed about how they want to be thought of and referred to. The general feedback was this: They want to be recognized as integral parts of society rather than as burdens. And their preferences for an age-group label are varied.

The survey by The Senior List (the seniorlist.com), a consumer research and information website, found sentiment around terms like “older adult,” “mature adult” and “retiree” is much more positive than “seniors” or “elderly.” They made people feel more included, “which is important as we age,” The Senior List reported.

Several points that emerged from the survey are:

  • “Senior” terms are on their way out. Traditional labels like “senior” or “senior citizen” were preferred by a small percentage of older adults – 17 percent and 10 percent, respectively. Younger respondents were less tolerant of both terms, foreshadowing a continued decline in popularity.
  • Inclusive terms are appreciated the most. Terms that slightly altered words like “adult” were most embraced by the group; 79 percent were positive about being called “older adults” or “mature adults.” On the flip side, terms that might make older adults feel alienated, like “the elderly” or “golden agers,” proved least popular.
  • Emphasis on lifestyle was preferred over longevity. The only term that focused on status rather than age (“retiree”) performed surprisingly well. Though half of survey respondents were under 65, only 17 percent disliked “retiree,” suggesting that older Americans may prefer stage-of-life labels over references to lifespan.

The lack of a standout isn’t particularly surprising, according to researchers, as that choice can be deeply personal. Some seniors embrace growing older, others resist mortality, while the very definition of “old” is a matter of perspective. Since aging is inevitable, perhaps some people feel boxed in or trapped by a label of any kind.

Those in their 50s don’t necessarily favor the same language as those in their 80s, which becomes apparent when dissecting the survey data along age lines.

Many opinions were consistent across age groups, especially the universal intolerance of least-popular names (“the elderly,” ”elderly,” and “golden agers”). A comparison of these emerging terms versus traditional titles, however, revealed different preferences by decade: 63 percent of respondents in their 50s chose inclusive references as their favorite, and had little love for traditional “senior” labels (9 percent). Opinions of those over age 80 were inverted, and senior titles (63 percent) topped the inclusive options (21 percent).

“This might only suggest that we become more comfortable with ‘senior’ titles as we grow older, but popular usage reflects the same shifting dynamic,” The Senior List said.

According to databases like Corpus of Contemporary American English and Google’s Ngram Viewer, which analyze word counts across published sources, the use of “senior citizen” has steadily declined since 1980, while “older adult” has consistently climbed in recent decades and looks to continue on that path.

Meanwhile, support for the lifestyle term “retiree” followed a classic bell curve, peaking around traditional retirement age, with less support among those too young to consider it or long past the age where it was relevant.

Then again, societal forces may soon divorce this term from age entirely. Older Americans now live longer, work longer, and have expanded employment opportunities thanks to remote technology. Tech moguls retire at 35 as grandparents re-enter the workforce, blurring lines so much that AARP stopped using its full name (American Association of Retired Persons) in favor of its four-letter acronym.

What’s the impact moving forward? The youngest folks who are 55-plus prefer the inclusive terms like “older” or “mature” adults, showing that “senior” or “elderly” terminology probably won’t be around much longer. And stage-of-life labels will be preferred to lifespan references.

Like this group from Auburn Senior Center who were celebrating their Seattle Seahawks fandom at a pre-pandemic event, older adults bubble with passions and interests.

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