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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

What will you call me when I'm 64? (IHT)

Language: What will you call me when I'm 64?
By Jack Rosenthal
Published: July 22, 2007

If Shakespeare were still alive, he would be 443 this year and would recognize the need to revise one of his most famous passages, the Seven Ages of Man. Infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, shrunk shank and then second childishness - these fall well short of describing our new age of age.

Some people have always lived to be very old, but never before have so many lived so much longer and stronger. Hence the Shakespearean problem: What to call these millions.
Harry (Rick) Moody, a scholar on the subject of aging, describes the great majority as the wellderly, distinct from the afflicted illderly. But that witty distinction doesn't solve the larger nomenclature problem. Language has not yet caught up with life.

No variation of elderly encompasses the vast variety and abilities of people over 55 or 65. Yet we keep looking for a single generic term. Oldsters and golden agers are patronizing, targets for comics. Then there are outright coarse insults like geezers, gaffers, crocks or gomers, the acronym that some cranky doctors use to mean "get out of my emergency room."

Still other terms fail because they are too narrow. Boomers, describing those born when the population started to bulge in 1946, are only now starting to enter their 60s. Retirees is an imperfect generalization because, for one thing, many people retire young and, for another, many older people continue to work, whether for the money or the satisfaction.

I've now learned from personal experience that even once-neutral terms have become troublesome. I'm involved with a new organization called ReServe that connects skilled people, near or at retirement age, with part-time jobs at nonprofit agencies in New York City. What to call them? They bridle even at inoffensive standbys like elders and older adults. An earlier generation found senior citizens acceptable, and senior as an adjective, as in senior vice president, remains so. But not as a noun, as in seniors.

Why? Not out of denial or vanity but because the experience of older people shows that any such generalization ignites unthinking discrimination - what Dr. Robert Butler, the longevity authority, has indelibly labeled ageism.

Somehow, even well-intentioned potential employers casually assume that age renders these folks - lawyers, teachers, writers, doctors, accountants, social workers - suddenly incapable of tasks more demanding than reading to third graders.

Marc Freedman, founder of Civic Ventures, a think tank and incubator of ideas about later years, has just published a book titled "Encore," describing examples of satisfying second and third careers, but that term applies to jobs, not people.

In a New York Times report last month on graying suburbs, Sam Roberts offered a clever coinage: suppies, playing off the '80s acronym for young urban professionals. But even that applies only to some of the millions in this eighth age of life.

"We struggle with this in everything we write," says William H. Frey, a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution. "We get a lot of pushback when we use 'pre-seniors' to describe people in their mid-50s. 'That's not me!' they say."

There is probably no single acceptable term - because no single term can embrace so vast and varied a population. The ultimate answer will most likely be a suite of functional and factual terms, like the typology scholars use to distinguish between the young old, 65 to 80; the old old, 80 to 90; the oldest old, 90 to 99; and centenarians. Terms like these, though somewhat awkward, are apt to enter common usage as society faces up to the new age of age. Necessity is the mother of locution.

Modern life keeps adding zeroes. Millionaire once meant rich. Now it describes the owner of a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. For a time, billionaire was an exclusive label; Forbes magazine now counts almost a thousand of them around the world. Meanwhile, Bill Gates and others have a head start toward becoming trillionaires.

Not so long ago, trillion was a figurative exaggeration for fantastically costly. In the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson worried about being the first president to ask Congress for a $100 billion federal budget. Next year, President Bush's budget request may exceed $3 trillion.
How, in this 13-figure world, do you now characterize immense amounts? For the moment, zillions will probably suffice, and then, when that pales into insignificance, there's always gazillions.

Jack Rosenthal is president of The New York Times Company Foundation.


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