A word about words

A photograph of the word 'Old' on a wall‘Older people’, the subject matter of this website, has a euphemistic ring. It sounds weaselly. Older than what, or whom? Babies? Toddlers? Teenagers? It’s a phrase that reminds me of the old Jonathan Miller joke: ‘In fact, I’m not really a Jew. Just Jew-ish.’ It prevaricates and quibbles and refuses to come out and say what it means, leaving open the option that it could be referring to a group who are older than, say, a class of 10 year-olds.

The relative term has grown in popularity because the absolute one – old – is so loaded with cultural baggage. ‘Old’ is used so often as a synonym for bad that we’ve stopped noticing. It conjures images of ‘tired’ or ‘finished’ or ‘obsolete.’ This is also true of its satellite words: think of ‘sunset industries’, or ‘ageing infrastructure’ or conversely, ‘young cities’. (I was tempted to write ‘vibrant young cities’ there, because that’s the near-automatic second adjective). Words that began simply as chronological designations, open to all sorts of evaluative layerings, have become rusted over with self-loathing notions of decline and decay.

In other words, if you write about ‘old people’, there seems to be much less room to take a positive approach, to see the second half of life as a period of creativity and possibility, than if you refer vaguely to ‘older people’ and sort of pretend they could be any age. This does, however, raise the question of what age exactly we are talking about. Demographers, politicians and campaigners quite often talk about older populations as being aged between 50 and 100 (once past that, people seem happy to accept their designation as centenarians). This is hardly a cohort. You wouldn’t lump a five year-old child in with a 48 year-old accountant and assume that they’re ‘younger’ or that their priorities are, a) shared and, b) at odds with those of the rest of the population.

Increasingly, older populations are being defined as aged 65 and over. But even then, the differences within cohorts are much greater than the differences between them. Geoff Oliver, the president of the 100km Association of ultramarathon runners (anything longer than a normal marathon) was reported in the Guardian to have run the London marathon in ‘a disappointing 3:45.’ He’s 76. Clearly, Mr Oliver has more things in common with a very fit 35 year-old than with a 75 year-old in a care home. As someone once said, ‘You’ve seen one 80 year-old, you’ve seen one 80 year-old.’

The awkwardness over nomenclature is indicative of a deep social unease about ageing. This tends to result in one of three responses (it’s possible to experience all three at once): denial, dismissal or fantasy. Denial, when it springs from the refusal to accept the narrative of ageing as decline, can be relatively healthy; when it talks of ‘older people’ and insists on their complexity, heterogeneity and potential. It’s less so when it turns older people into a market for a billion dollar industry aimed at selling products that insists they conform to the narrowest cultural ideal, that the only valid state is looking and ‘seeming’ youthful.

The second response, dismissal, involves lumping older people into a group of the ‘elderly’ and seeing them as more or less pathetic, incompetent and troubling. The most positive association I can think of for ‘elderly’ is ‘bus passes for the.’ It is of course very good that we fund free travel and winter fuel payments and other concessions designed to help those who live in poverty (a quarter of UK pensioners, one-third of Portuguese, nearly 30% in Spain and Greece, according to the Oxford Institute of Ageing). But the images of indigence and struggle summoned by ‘elderly’ are less than the full story of what it means to age.

The third response, fantasy, is the ‘golden years’ version of retirement, which, as Marc Freedman has demonstrated in his book Prime Time, was created in the twentieth-century by an alliance of the insurance, real estate and leisure industries as a new version of the American dream. While the golden years made some sense when people retired from often unrewarding jobs for a short period before death, it makes much less now. Thirty years on a golf course simply isn’t sustainable, financially or emotionally. Something more – some focus or purpose– is needed for a stage of life that could last forty or fifty years.

There have been some game attempts to redefine the second half of life, notably with the founding of the Université de la Troisième Age in France in 1972, which lent British academic Peter Laslett the title of an influential book, A Fresh Map of Life: The Emergence of the Third Age; and led to Laslett’s founding of the U3A (a very Big Society idea) in Britain with Michael Young and Eric Midwinter.

Other attempts at redefinition have been rather less successful. ‘Seniors’ and ‘elders’ each represented attempts to link ageing to experience, wisdom and hard-won authority. But in America, the former is more commonly used for college teams and has recently been corrupted by its association with ‘moment’ (though personally I have been walking into rooms and forgetting what I came for my entire life). ‘Elder’ is nowadays most often heard in conjunction with ‘care’ which is hardly surprising given that the elder care business in the United States is estimated to be worth $26.4bn.

One possibility is that Boomers will creep up on us as a synonym for old. Books and articles and books about ‘ageing boomers’ are multiplying like – well, like the parents of Boomers. As I’ve written elsewhere on Agebomb, ‘boomers’ feels to me like a US import, mainly because the demographic patterns in Europe were different from those in America, leading to a less seamless and homogeneous group. But Boomers also carries connotations (some dating back to the 1960s and 70s, some new) of generational warfare. Usually, the boomers are conceived of as selfish and greedy, diverting funds away from children and the economy because they failed to save enough to support their annoyingly long lives. Even where they’re a positive force, as in Theodore Roszak’s The Making of An Elder Culture, which argues that their demand for pension entitlements will force America to become a fairer, more social democratic country, there remains an element of manning the barricades against the rest of society.

As a starting point for a discussion of the possibilities for ageing, this all seems way too loaded. Other attempts at re-naming, listed by Marc Freedman in his book Encore, have included ‘Zoomers’; the ‘well-derly’ (as opposed to the ill-derly: yuk); and ‘gerries’ (short for geriatrics: picked up by the linguist Geoffrey Numberg from a twentysomething New Yorker who was on the way to visit his grandmother in Florida). You can see why some of them didn’t catch on.

The Washington Post columnist Abigail Trafford Walsh came up with middle-escence, while former Ms magazine editor Suzanne Braun Levine offered ‘second adulthood’ and Professor Phyllis Moen of the University of Minnesota the ‘midcourse’. Marc Freedman’s own use of Encore is clever, not least because it’s an adjective rather than a noun. I know exactly what he means by an Encore career: as he says, not a retirement job, not a transitional phase, not a bridge between the end of real work and the beginning of real leisure, not leftover time to be killed, but an entire stage of life and work – a paid job, undertaken for the public good.

‘Encore’ works, but it describes something rather more specific than what I’m after. And the trouble with the more upbeat designations generally is that they carry their own baggage. They rightly imply that older people can be fabulous, but leave out the possibility that not everyone can be fabulous all the time. From the point of view of someone trying to write about ageing populations in all their complexity and variability, they’re restricted. In making so much of the Third Age, they put the Fourth in the mad wife attic and pretend it doesn’t exist.

This is only human; most of us are keen to ignore the Fourth Age for as long as possible; it’s what contaminates the Third and makes growing older look so alarming. Which brings us back to the question of what we actually mean by older people. The needs and aspirations of a person may differ vastly between her Third Age and her Fourth. It’s not the same stage of life. But I don’t only want to write about Third Agers; I am interested in older people in all their multifarious diversity, with all the problems and potential that implies.

In the course of this blog, I’ve sneakily slipped in a couple of references to the second half of life, an expression I believe to have been coined by the George Washington University researcher and psychiatrist Gene Cohen, which seems to me an excellent, accurate and neutral description of what we’re talking about. And not dismaying in the least: how pleasant to reach 50 and think you’re about half way! But it’s not a description of people themselves (and for some reason ‘second halfers’ sounds like a group of condemned prisoners). So I am afraid that leaves us are stuck with older people. Unless of course, someone can come up with something better.