How old are you?

Shop Girl by Kitty Kaufman

Judith Graham is a freelance writer at The New York Times. She writes for the blog "The New Old Age." Four days ago she posted an article entitled "Elderly No More" which talks about her dilemma of how to describe people who are older. The blog got the attention of Ann Fishman who heads up a market research firm in New York. She wrote to Graham asking when she was going to change the name of the blog. Fishman says: "The boomers aren't going to like it. They don't ever want to get old." So Graham asked Fishman: What language should we use in talking about people 65 and older? Should we call them seniors, elderly, older adults or something else?

"For heavens' sake, don't call them anything," said Ms. Fishman. "Let's talk about their interests and values." Marketers, she noted, make it point to address potential customers' "stage of life" and "lifestyle," but never talk about their age. I saw the blog too. I wanted to find out about these two so I checked the bible, LinkedIn. Graham's profile dates back to 1984 so maybe she's 45. Fishman lists college graduation in 1963 so say she's over 50.

Fishman is right. Boomers don't like it because, you know, it has nothing to do with me. And I'm supposed to be posting articles about age because I'm the web master for the Brookline Senior Center. But I don't. I link to well-written stories about fun stuff: politics, sports, language, women, men, social media, food, cooking, fashion, the Fed, culture, gardening, divorce and texting. I never link to age stuff unless they insist. When you check the links you can figure out which ones those are: Age Rules

If you're over 50, have some gray hair and get hit by a bus, are conscious or unconscious lying in the gutter, whether you live or die, the media will describe you as elderly. What does age matter in a story about someone being hit by a bus? What color is the bus, where did it happen, who hit whom, was it raining, was the victim fashionably attired, and how much blood was spilled are what readers want to know.

No matter how kindly you mean them: elderly, senior, older, younger, teen, pre-teen, youngster, oldster, kid, retiree, aging, mature, immature, golden ager, youth, and adolescent, they're irrelevant in a story where age doesn't matter.

I was interviewed by a talented writer recently. After we finished talking about telecommunications, she apologized saying she had two personal questions. My heart sank: how old are you and how much do you make? No, thank goodness, where do you live? I said Brookline, home to Mike Dukakis and that we're crunchy but not as crunchy as say, Cambridge.

drink up The second, how old are you? And there it was. I demurred, saying it was one of my "things." She offered to try getting around it with her editor. I hope she's succeeded because it's a good story. Her editor: a man, probably 40 and five years from now when someone calls him middle-aged, he'll get huffy and maybe think twice about insisting writers label someone middle-aged, a 20-something or whatever. Enough already. A wise man told me never to tell anyone how old you are. He was right.

© April 23, 2012
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