Baby Boomers Don’t Want to be Called Senior Citizens

Call me professional, call me nice, or call me the life of the party, but don’t you dare call me elderly. Call me a “sweet old lady” and you’re in even bigger trouble! Call me a “senior citizen” and I’m irritated. After all, we don’t refer to people under 50 as “junior citizens.”

There’s a lot of debate these days on what to call us aging baby boomers. Seniors? Elderly or elders? Mature? Or simply older people?

Words matter.

According to one report, 80 percent of older Americans have been subjected to ageist stereotypes. No wonder we baby boomers want words that describe us in a way that bears a sense of dignity, which isn’t always easy to come by in later years.

In fact, some boomers have become so sensitive to negative words that they don’t want to be called Grandma and Grandpa anymore, preferring something a bit hipper like “Nana” or “Papa” befitting a more youthful attitude toward life.

After all, think of some of the words used to describe older people – derogatory terms like old codger, geezer, biddy, coot, fossil, hag, fart, and fogey.

And don’t you hate it when a waitress or sales clerk calls you “dear” or “dearie” which is supposed to sound endearing but just sounds downright demeaning? Next Avenue readers reacted strongly to an article “The Negative Effects of Elderspeak,  emphasizing that they find words such as “honey,” “sweetie” and “young lady” to be at best, rude, and at worst, disrespectful.

Consider all the insulting terms like “a senior moment,” which suggests that normal forgetfulness that can happen at any age is somehow tied only to getting older. Or the phrase “still driving” as if this is some kind of a miraculous accomplishment for older adults.

Even the term “seniors” seems aimed at creating barriers, especially in the workplace.

So, the search for better words continues.

A survey by The Journalists Exchange on Aging interviewed journalists who write about retirement and aging to find out which words they prefer to use when describing those over 50. The top choice was “older,” followed by “seniors,” (but only to describe those older than 65). Age-specific references such as “those over 50” or “people 65 and up” also won approval among the journalists.

“Senior citizen” was on the list of “mostly disliked” terms which some considered dehumanizing. “Elderly” was the word that grated the most, coming under criticism for its “impersonal and stigmatizing manner” of grouping older people with images of frailty and decline.

The term “boomers” was fine with survey participants, but not “baby boomers.” “They’re not babies anymore,” one respondent noted. Some journalists in the survey criticized “mature” as one of those words so deliberately, self-consciously “correct” – striving for linguistic neutrality – that they seem silly.

Another media guide on reporting issued by The International Longevity Center and ageism campaign group Aging Services of California suggested using terms like “older people” or simply “man” or “woman” followed by his or her age if relevant to the story. The guide added that using positive terms was “an important step in overcoming ageist language and beliefs.”

Alex Juarez, Communications Director for AARP Arizona agreed that we need to get rid of the negative stigma attached to getting older. “In reality, aging gives us experience,” he said. “At AARP, we don’t think we should be defined by age. For a couple of years, we have been using the term 50 plus. That’s important because we don’t want people to be identified as seniors.”

Some staff members at AARP The Magazine, favor a more playful approach to language. “We use the word grown-ups a lot,” said editor and vice president of AARP Steven Slon. He points to  a feature called “Movies for Grownups” as an example. He adds that 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.”

Of course, the question of what to call those over 50 isn’t simply one for the media. The words that people in general use to describe us help define and shape attitudes about growing older. So, the debate continues.

What word do you prefer to describe us baby boomers? What word do you find insulting? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.


Julie A. Gorges is the author of two young adult novels, Just Call Me Goody Two Shoes and Time to Cast Away and co-author of Residential Steel Design and Construction published by McGraw Hill. In addition, hundreds of her articles and short stories have been published in national and regional magazines, and she received three journalism awards from the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association while working as a newspaper reporter. Julie currently lives in southern California with her husband, Scott, and has two grown children and three grandchildren.

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15 Responses

  1. Cat Michaels says:

    It frosts me when people assume I am ignorant of technology and social media. Grrr. Or if I cannot do every pilates move in my weekly class because “it gets harder as we age”……..I NEVER could do every pilates move at any age. However, I will admit to a personal bias against attending “ silver sneakers” programs at the gym because those classes, at my gym at least, are not challenging and involve chairs.

    I am ok with “boomers” as that is an accepted demographic like Gen Z and Millennial. Maybe active adult? or 55 Plus? Just don’t call me a senior citizen or assume I am retired!

  2. Great article Julie! I sure don’t feel my age, most days. Okay, those days after softball games? Yes, I’m just happy to play and have found those younger than me to be completely respectful. Isn’t that the way it should be, respectful? It all in the matter of words one chooses.
    Age is one thing we cannot change. I do like what Cat said, “Active Adult” and “55 plus.” That sounds much kinder.

    Have an awesome weekend,

  3. Hi Julie, This struck a bit of a chord with me. I struggled when my grandson was born, there was no way I was going to be called Gran, I settled for Nanna. I am horrified if asked if I am a senior? and don’t call me Madam either. That feels like I own or run a brothel! No, I am definitely an active boomer going about her daily activities as she always did. As my dear dad always said, ‘you can call be anything, but never call me late for dinner.’ Well, almost anything, I have my limits.

  4. Vicki Tapia says:

    Dearie, sweetie, miss all grate on me. I second the motion for active adult, grown-up, or boomer, but please, not elderly or senior citizen. The outside view may not reflect how I feel on the inside, but I’m still an extremely active 60-something person able to do most things I’ve always done. I may think twice before leaping over the creek, but I’m still leaping!

  5. Karen Roff says:

    And please let’s omit the word “Aging” when referring to older adults. It reminds one of something deteriorating or someting going green in the back of the fridge! Anyway, EVERY living thing, including humans, begin AGING from their first day of life. It should NOT be used to only define people over a certain age.

  6. Kimberley says:

    I agree. I’m 60, and I don’t want anything to do with terms like “senior” and “elderly.” I find them offensive. I’m very active, in shape, involved, creative, and words like that are not relatable at all.
    I’m fine with “woman,” and “woman, age 60” if it’s in any way necessary to the narrative. I’m nobody’s mother, and nobody’s grandmother. If you are, that’s fine, but I’m not, so there’s nobody on this earth who has any business calling me “grandma” either.
    I’ve heard reporters refer to people as “grandmother” when the subject at hand had absolutely nothing to do with familial relationships, or stick in the word “elderly” when discussing someone whose age had nothing to do with the story, and man or woman would have sufficed. I’ve heard young waiters call older women “young lady” and I want to slap them; it is demeaning. Ageism is the last bastion of socially acceptable bigotry, it seems. People who would never dream of making a racist, sexist, homophobic remark still think nothing of using derogatory and sometimes intentionally insulting ageist terms – and it’s the one group that they themselves are destined to join.

  7. Melissa says:

    I support the idea for the dynamic grown-up, grown-up, or boomer, yet if you don’t mind an old or senior resident. I am sickened whenever inquired as to whether I am a senior? what’s more, don’t call me Madam either. That feels like I own or run a house of ill-repute! No, I am certainly a functioning boomer approaching her everyday exercises as she generally did.

    • juliegorges says:

      Thanks for making me laugh when you said using the term “Madam” makes you feel like you own or run a house of ill-repute. Too funny! Love the thought about being a dynamic boomer.

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