“Financial Life Planning” column by Mitch Anthony at Financial Advisor magazine.
Recently, The Economist published an intriguing editorial asking what we are going to call the older people lingering between “work and decrepitude,” an expanding demographic that right now lacks a proper name, though some flippant ones include “geriactives” and “sunsetters.”
According to the Census Bureau, adolescents today make up approximately 13% of the population, but by 2050, estimates are they will make up only 11%. The group we call seniors is going in reverse. They also currently account for 13% of our population, but by 2060, they will account for 20%.
According to Pew Research, 19% of seniors or retirees age 65 and older are working full time or part time––and that number has been rising continuously for the past two decades (it was approximately 12% in the year 2000). This group with no name, who are clearly not acting like “seniors” or “retirees,” are the fastest growing cohort in our population.
Why is it so important to properly brand this age group? Because present and future societies’ views of them can and will be affected by the language we choose. Perceptions can––and do––sway with descriptions.
There is no denying the biases against age in our culture, and I can tell you with certainty that retirement policies through the years have done nothing but perpetuate and expand those biases. One thing that has always irked me is the offering of a compliment with the qualifier, “for your age.” “Oh, you look great … for your age.” “You’re doing really well … for your age.” Why do we need the qualifier? Isn’t it fair enough to just tell someone they look good or are doing well––period? This is why the topics of language and aging intrigue me so much.
After playing a round of golf at my club with three gentlemen aged 72, 74 and 81, I came to an important realization: All three would today be classified as “seniors,” but they are all businessmen or business owners still working five to six days a week, at least part time. All three are vibrant, energetic and perspicacious––certainly not pictures of resignation.
We have 9 million to 10 million people in this category in the U.S. and it’s growing––so what should we call them? “Senior citizens” or “retirees” are names certainly not applicable to people living this stage of life on their own terms both in vocation and on vacation.
This is a language riddle I think we need to solve. It is similar to the riddle of what to call “retirement”––whose suspension by some these days evokes puns and hybrid terms such as “refirement” or “rewirement.” The best term I’ve seen offered is by Marc Freedman, who calls it an “encore” (and thus christened his site Encore.org). “Encore” is a much more resonant description of the lifestyle at this stage of life. Yet the term is describing the stage––and what we need is a word to describe the actors on this stage.
In the last presidential election, all three candidates were part of this group. Warren Buffett is at the upper end. Forbes publishes a list of the oldest CEOs, but the list of those over 65 is much longer. In the nonprofit sector, over 30% of board members and close to 15% of executive leaders are over 65. These individuals don’t sound like senior citizens to me. Yet if you do a search on the “impact of people over 65,” almost all the articles are about health care and the economic drag of the cohort. That’s missing the promise and potential of this group, says Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. “The shame is that we’re only looking at the problems,” she says. “There are problems, but we’re not looking for opportunities. It’s surprising to people when you say something like ‘The number of older people in the world is the only natural resource that’s actually growing.’”
We could call this active, productive and vibrant group “Encorists” or “Encorers,” but those terms are a bit unwieldy. Someone has suggested the acronym OWLS (older, working less, still earning)––which certainly has some possibility––but I don’t think we need “older” as the lead. There are other animals that could lend their names, too, such as the bobcat or red panda––crepuscular creatures that are active primarily before and during twilight.
In the past, terms like “middle-escence” have been offered in an effort to capture the energy of this group, but that label fails to capture the substance and purpose at work in most people in this category. I like the term “vespers”––alluding to activity later in the day. Maybe a term like “vespertine” (or “vesperteen”) might get us moving toward the demographic moniker we lack. How about “keenagers?” Or are we trivializing again with words that reference younger stages of life?
We could call them “pre-tirees,” or perhaps “sagers” (mature, wise and useful). Or is there another term capturing the experience and savvy that lead to post-midlife success?
I do know we don’t need terms indicating decline or frivolity, such as “sunsetters” or “golden-agers.” We need a term that exudes the spirit, life and usefulness of the cohort in question.
In the interest of stirring the neologism pot, I’m asking for any ideas that might occur to you. Drop me an email at [email protected] if you get a flash. I think coming up with a new term is an important step toward gaining proper social recognition and escaping the age-related prejudices of our culture.
Mitch Anthony is the author of the industry best seller StorySelling for Financial Advisors and the groundbreaking The New Retirementality (now in its fourth edition). A highly sought-after speaker, Mitch is widely regarded as a thought leader and pioneer in Financial Life Planning.