That Old Story

Shop Girl by Kitty Kaufman

party Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts exhibition
Judith Graham was a freelance writer at The New York Times. She wrote for the blog "The New Old Age." She posted an article titled "Elderly No More" which talked 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 Fishman. "Let's talk about their interests and values." Marketers, she noted, make it point to address their potential customers by their "stage of life" and "lifestyle," but never talk about their age. I read the blog. I wanted to find out about these two so I looked on LinkedIn. Graham's profile goes back to 1984 so maybe she's 45. Fishman lists college graduation in 1963 so let's say she's over 50.

Fishman is right. Boomers don't like it because, you know, it has nothing to do with me.

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? There's the story.

No matter how kindly you mean: elderly, senior, older, younger, teen, pre-teen, youngster, oldster, kid, retiree, aging, mature, immature, golden ager, youth, and adolescent, they are in their own way, politically incorrect. Which today, is nearly everything.

I knew someone not so long ago who routinely used the word "youngster" to describe someone sitting in his lecture hall that's younger than he is old. And though I may have mentioned, more than once, that this makes him sound like he is 150 and an alter cocker, he persists.

I was interviewed by a talented writer. 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 succeeded because it's a good story. I know who her editor is: a man, maybe 40 and five years from now when someone refers to him as middle-aged, he'll get huffy and maybe think twice about calling out age or referring to me as middle-aged or whatever. Enough already. A wise man told me when I was young enough to laugh but old enough to remember, never tell anyone how old you are. He was right.

© April 23, 2012 Kitty Kaufman is a New Yorker who lives in Boston.
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