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Successful Aging: Finding fresh ways to describe a life stage that’s new to everyone

Q: I am a 65-year old male baby boomer who is healthy and active. I just cannot identify with getting “old,” and don’t ever think of myself as “retired.” Can we come up with some different words? S.F.

Dear S.F.

Language is a problem. Specialists in aging struggle with the issue. For some, the terms “retirement” and “old” have a negative spin. For others, it’s a non-issue. Here are some possible reasons for our struggle.

“Retirement” originates from the French word “retirer,” meaning to withdraw. Part of retirer – tirer – comes from “martir” or in English, martyr. We know that martyrs were tortured. Is there any wonder why “retirement” may be a painful term?

The term “old” is uncomfortable for many, and we are responsible for some of that discomfort. According to Ann Gerike, author of the book, “Old is Not a Four-Letter Word,” we need to watch our language. She writes that we use “old” and “young” to describe too many characteristics. If we mean to say that someone is healthy, happy, vital, creative and energetic, we need to use these adjectives, rather than just saying the person is young. If we mean to say that someone is unhealthy, miserable, rigid or boring, we need to use these words, rather than saying the person is old.

New terminology is emerging because we are in a new life stage. It is a stage so new that social scientists cannot agree on what to call it. The cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson said it well. “We’ve added 20 years not to the end of life but to the middle of life.” This period of time is uncharted territory of expectations, experiences and potential for growth and change.

AARP has shown sensitivity to the term “retirement. Formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, it now is “AARP” with a subtitle of “Real Possibilities.” The “R” word – retirement – has disappeared for good reason. A large percent of their members who are 50 years older are working; others just don’t relate to the term.

Here are a few examples of new terminology.

Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity calls this period of time “Act IV.” The psychologist Erik Erickson called it “generativity.” Ken Dychtwald, founder and CEO of Age Wave calls it “middlescence” – a kind of mid-life adolescence, when one is trying to figure out life and the world. Marc Freedman, CEO and president of, calls it the “encore years.” There’s more. Abigail Trafford, former health editor for the Washington Post and award-winning journalist, calls this period of time the “bonus years.” My colleague Bernice Bratter and I use the term “renewment,” a word we made up that is a combination of retirement and renewal. Other terms are the “X Revolution, “Adulthood II,” and “La Troisèime Age” used by the French meaning the third age.

Part of this change is due to the fact people are living longer and are asking “what’s next” as they approach the next 20 to 30 years of their lives. They have high expectations for meaningful roles, new opportunities, challenges, leisure pursuits, giving back and a life of security and dignity.

So what is our challenge?

Consider using the word “older” rather than “old.”

Use adjectives you really mean to say instead of substituting the words “young” and “old.” Remember, creativity, energy and beauty apply to all life stages, not just youth.

Redefine the meaning of retiree or retirement for yourself. Develop new roles that fit who you are and who you want to be.

A prediction: In this decade, the new life stage also called retirement will be very cool. Approximately 78 million boomers are marching into this period of time. Because of their sheer number, they have been trendsetters for years and won’t stop now. From hula-hoops to SUV’s, the boomers have led the way. They will continue to redefine the retirement experience in ways that reflect their personal lifestyles and priorities. New terminology will be part of the change.

S.F., thank you for your good question. Let’s remove the negative myths and let “age” and “retirement” stand for experience, wisdom, choices and personal new beginnings.

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