This is the first submission in AIM's new essay series that takes a topic and explores intergenerational points of view.
Up until my senior year of high school and the dreadful college application season, I had never heard of gerontology or the studies revolving around older adults. Sure, I wanted to pursue medicine at the college level, but I found biochemistry or psychology to be the avenues to get there. My academic counselor had called me in and asked that I do some research on gerontology and becoming a geriatrician, opening my eyes to an undiscovered world.
Now, two years later and after having taken a handful of courses, I took this incredibly long March spring break away from being outside to reflect on my generation — Gen Z — and our interactions with the many people who came a few decades before us. I’ve seen and heard firsthand the whole array of monikers in class and conversation with friends.
Even growing up as a Filipino-American, we showed a great amount of respect for our older family members, even including a formality po in Tagalog to reinforce that wisdom and authority. However, I never realized how often we illustrate aging as a terrifying, degrading process. On top of that, waves of intergenerational discourse and warfare pits the young against the old.
At the end of the day, it’s not easy to just erase such common perceptions, but small changes in language can generate waves of difference down the road.
As gerontologists — academics studying the latter half of the lifespan — and aging activists alike continue to challenge the persisting image of older adults in media and academia, it’s not surprising that the language and popular lingo amass to over two pages-worth of terminology all revolving around the later part of the lifespan. Terms from the previously mentioned “older adult” to “aged” and even as far as “senior citizens” pervade papers and articles.
When reminiscing about my on-campus experiences at college, I recall the first day that I stepped into my first gerontology-related class. We were prompted with a simple but important question, “What did gerontology mean to us?” As students in one of the few schools of gerontology in the world, this was probably important to know. The freshman I was, I said something along the lines of “the study of the lifespan with an emphasis on the elderly.”
My professor, looking both displeased and pleased with my answer, noted that while I was technically correct, I was also terribly wrong.
More specifically, I quickly learned about the ramifications of using the term “elderly.” I was quite frankly a bit skeptical at first; what harm could it be to simply refer to my grandparents or older adults as elderly? Simultaneously, the term “boomer” and the phrase “ok boomer” had sprouted in pop culture and particularly on social media. And although my friends teased me by apologizing whenever they had used the so-called “b-word,” I found the sudden explosion of the term alarming. What many may fail to realize is the impending dangers that arise with what Holly Scott of The Washington Post refers to as “generational solidarity” through the use of a single term like “boomer.” Intergenerational divides could simply not be more clearly defined than they are today.
The disregard and quick stereotyping of other generations has culminated in an outright war, with a pandemic and political firestorm only contributing to the growing intergenerational chasm.
It’s the word choice and repetitious nature of each term that play into what many academics refer to as stereotype embodiment, a key aspect of the ageism cycle. The duality of terms like “boomer” or “elder” can quickly reinforce the existing stereotypes of aging — being hard-headed, stubborn, or constantly grumpy. Deemed the “most socially accepted form of prejudice” by the World Health Organization, it’s no wonder ageism present in these terms continues to persist on the Internet and pop culture sphere. Sadly, “boomer” is one of many terms in a series of other derogatory language used against the older adult population. Even those who may believe that they’re using age-friendly language (“Honey,” “Sweetie,” “Cutie,” etc.) fail to realize that these older folks aren’t babies or a cute puppy you’d stumble upon at a Petco — they’re functioning, active people.
But even in using “politically-correct terminology,” there’s yet another divide. It’s between those who look to combat ageist language and those who are proud of their age as is. I know plenty of older adults who are perfectly fine with being called “boomer” and embrace it. Similar terms like “old geezer” or “vintage” can go the same way. And for some, this whole argument can sound like an issue of hypersensitivity, a product of the liberal media, or even just another college “snowflake” hounding at the realities of aging. Yet, while I cannot convince you to change your tone or to make simple changes to your word choice, this isn’t a matter of politics; it is simply an act of respect for ourselves and others.
Just glance at the changing workplace, for example. The subtlest moves or words can make a great deal of impact on co-workers and supervisors alike. If it’s too much of a hassle to adapt to these new conditions by being more conscious of your word choice — again, out of self-respect — then many institutions will reprimand or remove you, it’s as simple as that. I too want to understand, believe me. I’m just a college student who hasn’t even wrapped up two full decades on this planet. But I know that everyone deserves an ounce of respect, and a simple, more accepting change in vocabulary never hurt anyone.
I’m not asking to not dot your i's or leave your t’s looking like l’s; I’m just imploring you to be more aware of the language you use as or around an older adult.
But, that’s not to say that progress isn’t being made.
Many journalism outlets such as The New York Times and, more recently, college papers like The Daily Trojan have made changes to their respective style guides when referring to older persons. As a community of activists, we should do the same and encourage this behavior from our own media outlets. Even in the workplace, leaps and bounds have been made to reduce ageist remarks both ways, whether it be the older adult who cannot keep up with technology or the younger employee who lacks any genuine experience in whatever job field it may be.
Let’s make a concerted effort to also acknowledge the older adults in our lives along with the older persons in assisted living communities. Aging simply stated is a biological and transformative process that is already feared by many; why must we make the transition to later life harder than it should be on ourselves and our loved ones? We have to only make simple changes in our vocabulary to induce rippling change and tackle the cycle of ageism for future generations. ---- I’ve always been a bit baffled by the notion that I may have to explain to my children about everything going on in the current world.
—About the Author
Lois Angelo is an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California studying Human Development and Aging. His articles have been published by the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, and his biweekly column "Back in My Day" is one of the first gerontology-related columns run by the University's publication, the Daily Trojan. With a focus on intergenerational connections and how members of the youth can combat ageism from the ground up, Lois hopes to explore his passions for gerontology and older adults in his pursuit of medical school.