Every May in the United States, Americans observe Older Americans Month, a month-long observance devoted to celebrating older Americans and their contributions and raising awareness about issues related to age and aging. This makes May an important time during which to consider language used to talk about older people and ageism—which we should be doing every month of the year, too!
This topic matters because we are living a lot longer than we did even several decades ago. According to the United Nations, the average life expectancy of a person in the 1960s was 52.5 years old. Today, that number has climbed to 72.7 years old. In some countries, that number goes even higher: the United Kingdom reported that the average baby boy born in 2016 could expect to live to be 79.2 years old and a baby girl nearly 83 years old.
These figures raise an important question: first of all, what does “old age” mean, anyway?
What do we mean by old age?
We define old age as “the last period of human life, now often considered to be the years after 65.” The United Nations also often uses the age 65 when listing statistics or data about older persons. The World Health Organization lowers the number a little bit to age 60 when referring to “older people.” The World Economic Forum takes a more statistical (and grimly realistic) approach and defines old age as beginning at a country’s average age of death minus fifteen years.
These different approaches illustrate that it is often a matter of opinion when exactly old age begins. Interestingly, polls typically show that the younger you are, the sooner you are to believe that a person enters old age.
When is middle age?
We define middle age as “the period of human life between youth and old age, sometimes considered as the years between 45 and 65 or thereabout.”
Given the different views on when old age begins, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that the exact range of middle age is not set in stone either. In general, our age range of “45 to 65” is around the age range generally used to say when middle age supposedly occurs. Polling shows that people may think middle age begins later or earlier depending on who you ask. Statistically speaking, the average life expectancy in the United States is 78.7 years old, which would mean middle age would mathematically begin in an American’s late 30s.
Older vs. senior vs. elderly
Three words that you may commonly hear to refer to people of higher age groups are older, senior, and elder(ly). The words elderly and senior have begun to fall out of favor, and the term older has become the preferred word to use.
Many people have raised objections to the words senior and elderly for several reasons, the most common of which is that both terms are thought to imply that a person is frail, and neither term accounts for the wide range of lifestyles or abilities of the people they refer to.
This brings us to the word older. Take note of the -er on the end of the word! In general, this term is widely accepted by media outlets, scientific and medical organizations, major global organizations such as the United Nations, and (according to polls) people in general. Of all three terms, older is typically seen as the most neutral, the most factually accurate (everybody is older than someone, after all), and has the least implications about a particular person’s lifestyle. Older is often used as an adjective to refer to specific groups, such as “older Americans” or “older voters.”
🔑 Key message
The most important thing is to be respectful of everyone around you and avoid using language, such as elderly or senior, many people find belittling or condescending.
What is ageism?
Ageism is defined as as “discrimination against persons of a certain age group” or “a tendency to regard older persons as debilitated, unworthy of attention, or unsuitable for employment.”
According to the World Health Organization, “Ageism refers to the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age.” The WHO considers ageism to be a serious global problem that contributes to hostility between generations and can have significant medical and economic impacts. According to the WHO, ageism has cost just the United States $63 billion in additional costs toward health care for the eight most expensive health conditions.
Ageism impacts younger people, too
While ageism is often considered from the perspective of prejudice against older people, ageism can be directed at younger people, too. Often, this takes the form of condescending language, negative views of young peoples’ attitudes, opinions, conduct, and style, or negative stereotypes of younger generations. For example, millennials (and other young people) are often said to be “entitled,” “lazy,” “narcissistic,” “disrespectful,” paradoxically both uninterested in societal issues and too “woke,” and so on.
Forms of ageism in language
Sometimes, ageist language is easy to identify. There are many obvious terms that are considered insulting or belittling when used to refer to older people—though, of course, some older people may use them themselves in a self-deprecating way. Some of these terms include:
In slang, the terms “the olds” or “an old” are used to refer to older people/an older person. While generally meant to be playful, these terms can be considered petty or worse—insensitive— if used to refer to what we consider to be older people. However, these terms can also be used ironically to refer to anyone who is older than the speaker, such as a person’s parents or older siblings.
For more context on the history and origin of these terms, we’ve provided links in this section and throughout—but we are not condoning the insulting usage.
In general, it is considered ageist to use language that implies medical illness, dependency, or disability when referring to older people. This includes language such as:
The above words are considered ageist because they are often used to imply that all older people need medical assistance or support, which is obviously untrue. Instead, you can use more acceptable words to refer to buildings or neighborhoods with large numbers of older people living in them, such as community, apartments, residence, senior living (if the community itself uses this term), or assisted living (a term that could refer to all age groups).
Some of the terms that can be considered insensitive—if not just cliche or disrespectful—are euphemisms, or mild, indirect, or vague expressions that substitute for another thought to be offensive, harsh, or blunt. In this case, the euphemisms don’t directly refer to a person’s age but mean a person is of old age. These include:
Other terms can be considered insensitive because they imply that it is abnormal for an older person to be energetic or in good physical shape:
And more generally speaking, euphemisms can take on pejorative qualities of the terms they originally replaced.