Just because someone’s approaching their golden years doesn’t mean they don’t still feel young at heart. While the most common term for older folks is ‘senior citizen,’ this isn’t always a fitting phrase in most contexts outside of legal forms and restaurant discount menus.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Does the Term ‘Senior Citizen’ Mean?
- Where Does the Term ‘Senior Citizen’ Come From?
- Is ‘Senior Citizen’ or ‘Elderly’ Politically Correct or Polite?
- What You Can Call People Instead of ‘Senior Citizen’
- A New Definition of Old Age
We did some brainstorming so you don't have to. In this guide, you’ll find the complete list of alternatives to calling someone a ‘senior citizen.’ Never find yourself stumbling to find the right words again, no matter the situation.
What Does the Term ‘Senior Citizen’ Mean?
First and foremost, what does the term ‘senior citizen’ really mean? This is a common phrase, but it’s not often that we take the time to pause and consider the definition behind it. Words and phrases have meanings, and these meanings shape the world around us.
In most Western nations, to be a ‘senior citizen’ means to reach old age. However, age is more than just a number. What one person considers old might be someone’s middle age. For the purpose of this definition, someone becomes a senior citizen when they reach the onset of old age between 60 and 65 years old. This is the designated age because it’s when most Americans retire and qualify for assistance programs.
If we break down the term ‘senior citizen’ even further, it’s possible to draw even more conclusions about what it means. For example, the term ‘senior’ on its own is generally a positive term. In the workplace, being a ‘senior employee’ is a good thing, and it highlights one’s mastery and expertise. Seniors are seen as wise and deserving of respect from their communities. Still, the phrase ‘senior citizen’ is often seen as patronizing and impolite to some.
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Where Does the Term ‘Senior Citizen’ Come From?
With that in mind, where did the term ‘senior citizen’ come from? It may come as a surprise that this wasn’t always the normal term to describe the aging population. Prior to the 1930s, the term in North America commonly used was ‘old-age pensioner. Similarly considered derogatory, it was a practical way to refer to those who received a pension after retiring.
What’s an old-age pensioner?
In the early 20th century, the term ‘old-aged pensioner’ fell into use. This was adopted after states began to offer assistance to aging adults on a state level. Prior to pensions and social safety nets, it was expected for children and families to care for aging adults.
As more adults moved out of their family homes, states looked for a way to provide for the aging population who didn’t have relatives to draw upon. At this time, states had strict residence requirements and strict eligibility rules. By the 1920s, pension laws became a huge source of debate amongst state and local elections, changing the terminology around this process.
The new ‘senior citizen’
The term shifted to ‘senior citizen’ in the 1930s with a change in a California amendment. This proposal provided a retirement plan of $30 a week for life to every ‘senior citizen’ aged 50 and older. At the time, the American life expectancy was around 63 years old, hence the difference in retirement age.
Since then, ‘senior citizen’ has become the expected way to refer to those who reach their Golden Age. Today, the phrase still refers to those who are pension-age and who are likely to retire from their profession. However, language is always evolving to meet society. Though this term has become the norm for the past century, it’s likely to change in the near future as the age of retirement changes.
Is ‘Senior Citizen’ or ‘Elderly’ Politically Correct or Polite?
One of the main questions about the term ‘senior citizen’ is whether it’s politically correct or even polite. It’s true that this term feels harsh and makes the individual in question feel like less of a person, instead, being called a ‘citizen.’
Many argue that ‘senior citizen’ and also the term ‘elderly’ are ageist. They are often seen as demeaning to the over-50 population who don’t feel like they’re any less of a person than other adults. Many senior citizens today feel vibrant, active, and perfectly content with where they’re at in life.
In addition, people are living longer than ever before, thanks to modern medicine. This means the way we define ‘senior citizens’ and ‘elderly’ folks is also evolving. While today this is seen as anyone 50+, that’s sure to change soon.
The AMA Manual of Style actually corrected the preferred term when it comes to referring to older people. While they say the term ‘elderly’ is still okay when describing an issue related to the population as a whole, this isn’t the everyday term. Instead, they’re advocating for terms like ‘older persons,’ ‘older people,’ ‘elderly patients,’ ‘geriatric patients,’ ‘older adults,’ and ‘persons 65 years and older.’
It’s easy to see why these terms humanize the older population, giving them back their humanity in a way "senior citizen" never could. While it’s not officially taboo to say "elderly" or "senior citizen," it’s best to use these terms to only refer to the specific population as a whole, not individuals.
What You Can Call People Instead of "Senior Citizen"
Now that you know why the term ‘senior citizen’ is falling out of use, it’s time to talk about what you should say instead. While this will depend on the context, the individual, and your own personal speaking style, here are some popular alternatives.
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1. Older people
It’s a good idea to follow the AMA Manual of Style’s lead with this one. When in doubt, keep it simple. ‘Older people’ and ‘older folks’ is almost always an appropriate alternative to ‘senior citizen.’
The keyword here is ‘people.’ By referring to this population as older ‘people’ instead of citizens (a term that sounds more like a number than an individual), you humanize this group of society.
Recently, many people on social media have been referring to older people as "olders." It might sound a bit strange at first, but you have to admit it has a certain ring to it.
Just like "youngers," this term retains much-needed humanity while also staying trendy.
Another common play on words is "perennials." This is a play on "millennials," and it’s easy to see why this is a favorite on social media and beyond. It’s all about helping languages keep up with the times, and this is easier said than done.
Though "senior citizen" is seen as patronizing, the same isn’t always said for the shortened "seniors."
Because it excludes the word "citizen," it’s still seen as human and lighthearted. "Seniors" allows for a lot of flexibility, so this word is sure to catch on faster than its lengthier alternative.
5. Older adults
In academia and publishing, "older adults" is increasingly common. This term creates a clear description of the aging population without making it an entirely new category of humans.
This less-offensive term is the new normal in many fields, and you can feel confident using it in most settings.
6. People in their 50’s and up
Another term that’s sometimes a mouthful is "people in their 50’s and up." This was popularized by The New York Times’ stylebook, and it’s flexible to any age group.
You’ll see The New York Times use anything from "people in their 70s" to "people over 80" to describe this group in a more specific nature. They’ve frequently commented that this approach is the most factual, thus it’s common sense.
7. Third and fourth age
Two other academic terms that are gaining popularity across society are "third age" and "fourth age."
Third age refers to the period after retirement but before a decline in health. The fourth age is one’s final years of life. While these terms do place a lot of emphasis on physical abilities, they are flexible.
A New Definition of Old Age
It’s also important to remember that old age isn’t something that’s easily defined. While this might have made more sense hundreds of years ago when not as many people were likely to reach their golden years due to famine, disease, and war, times are changing.
Today, 50+ or 65+ is an arbitrary distinction. It doesn’t really mean anything.
Instead, those in their retirement years and beyond are exploring new things, traveling, and staying active. The problem with most of the terms above (including "senior citizen" and "elderly"), is that they imply that older folks are less than younger folks. They also imply that everyone ages in the same way, and that’s certainly untrue.
In reality, everyone experiences aging differently. There is no cookie-cutter term that covers the entire spectrum of experience. That’s where language fails. Words are powerful, but they can’t overcome the biases and gaps within society.
What’s more important is that you focus on the individual rather than the term. "Senior citizen" and "older people" have little difference at the end of the day. It’s always better to refer to people by their names, interests, and facts, not their age demographics. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all term.
This linguistic problem isn’t likely to disappear any time soon. However, we can combat ageism and biases in our own lives by examining how we use language each and every day.
What’s In a Name?
As Shakespeare famously wrote, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In other words, it doesn’t matter what word we use in everyday life. ‘Senior citizen’ and ‘elderly’ do little to cover the broad range of experiences for those defined by these age ranges.
Words have power, but it’s also important to note their limitations. It’s easy to understand why some might find the term ‘senior citizen’ offensive. It’s ageist and outdated, no longer fitting the modern-day experience of aging. It’s up to us to do better in the way we refer to the ones we love, demographics, and the world around us.