I’m not old, I’m a perennial

Senior? Silver surfer? Retiree? None of these words will do. Join me in my quest to find an answer to the question: what to call old people?

Over supper, in our age-divergent household, we rediscovered an ancient truth. Young people think everyone over the age of 30 is old.

I remember it well: when I was in my early twenties (as were two of the people at the table that night) there were people I thought of as old. Looking back on it, they were probably in their forties.

I apologise, silently and across the years, from the perspective of my now considerable age, which is 61.

That’s not something I talk about a lot. I don’t feel 61 (in my head, I am 35), and there’s no point in highlighting the fact that I am older than many of the people I work with. I don’t particularly want to expose myself to stereotyping and ageism if I don’t have to (and yes,  I am well aware that ageism cuts all ways: you can be nasty about and to young people in just the same way you can be nasty about and to old people). 

But I find that the river of life has carried me here, anyway.

And, sitting here, in this creaky yet sturdy boat, I don’t like what I see, people.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to be older than other people

I’m in the process of changing, expanding and re-engineering both my life and the work I do. As part of that process, I want to launch an online course. I did the thing you are told to do by gurus on theInternet, which is to assess my strengths and experience and skills. It leapt out at me that I am often asked to explain tech things to my friends and relatives. Why not spread that mojo around, I thought.

I’ve been working on various aspects of what such a course might entail, and have got to the bit where I have to do some writing of training materials. My course is aimed at people in their 50s and older, and I need a lexicon. I need a way to say: hey you of a certain age, I can help.

Why is it all so boring?

Off I went to the Conscious Style Guide, to find their resources on language about old people. There’s a page of links to authoritative sources. Guidelines for Age-Inclusive Communication from an organisation called Changing The Narrative seemed a good place to start.

They warn against using words like seniors, elderly, senior citizens, the aged, old person, young person. I’m with them! Can we add any mention of grey, or silver, or pensions, or retirees please? And any use of the phrase “older folks” is likely to make me want to stab you in the eye. Let’s ban baby boomer too (if the last year in which you can be classified a boomer is 1964, then that means anyone over 60 is a boomer. That’s 918 million people, give or take. I think we can agree they won’t all be the same?). And please don’t call me old lady. Or, in fact, a lady at all. F*ck that.

Anyway, back to the earnest people at Changing the Narrative. They quote Associated Press as recommending these alternatives: older adult or older people. “Use phrases such as older workers, older athletes, younger people,” the AP says.

I’m glad to hear this, because I’ve been using the phrase older people. But I don’t like it. It’s just plain boring.

Surely there’s some other way to do this? 

I did some hunting around in blog land, and what I found was depressing. So much of what’s out there has the subtle underlying idea that older people are somehow different, that they deserve special treatment.

And I have always rejected the idea that any class of people needs special treatment. That way lies ghetto thinking. When you are seen as “special” in some way, you are open to being seen as different, useless, not fully human.

But in that hunting I found something else, something triumphant.

Enter the perennial

Entrepreneur Gina Pell, now in her 50s, coined the term “perennials” in 2016. She jettisoned all the marketer-minted generational labels, saying: “Tolerance feels unattainable when there are hard lines drawn between decades, and terms like boomers, gen X, and gen Y keep us separate and at odds. ”

So what’s a perennial? I leave it to Gina:

We are ever-blooming, relevant people of all ages who live in the present time, know what’s happening in the world, stay current with technology, and have friends of all ages. We get involved, stay curious, mentor others, and are passionate, compassionate, creative, confident, collaborative, global-minded risk takers who continue to push up against our growing edge and know how to hustle. We comprise an inclusive, enduring mind-set, not a divisive demographic.

I am all of those things. So are all my friends over the age of 50 (and the ones below the age of 50). You know, just… the people we all know.

Because labels hurt us all, whether they’re sexist, racist or ageist. I leave the last word to the late, great Ursula le Guin:

If you deny any affinity with another person or kind of person, if you declare it to be wholly different from yourself – as men have done to women, and class has done to class, and nation has done to nation – you may hate it, or deify it; but in either case you have denied its spiritual equality, and its human reality. You have made it into a thing, to which the only possible relationship is a power relationship. And thus you have fatally impoverished your own reality. You have, in fact, alienated yourself.


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Main picture: Ravi Patel, Unsplash

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  1. A great post Renee. I don’t object to being called ‘perennial’. It reminds me of the plants in my garden, blooming year after year, adding value and beauty. I cannot abide the generalisations of Gen whatever. All these labels. It’s so judgmental.

    • Thank you Simone! I loved the idea of perennial for those same reasons – “blooming year after year”, as you say.

  2. Hi Renee, Great post. 🙂
    I started to realise that people thought of me as old when young people started calling me “Oom Richard” and “Mister Richard”. That all seemed to start when I hit 70. I am now 76 and know that they are being respectful to this old man – which makes me feel warm inside. When my Grandmother died at the age of 100 years and 6 Months, I decided that I would like to make it to 101 years old. Just so that if I meet Her again, I can say, “HI Gran, I beat you by 6 Months”. LOL.
    When I retired in 2023, I decided that I was not going to spend the next 30 years doing nothing, so I am currently working on a copy editing and proofreading course online with CMP.
    Anyway, that is enough rambling from this old man for now, and I will chat again.

    • Hi Richard – thank you for a great comment. For me the realisation that I was old came when I became invisible – once you hit a certain age, nobody looks at you. Which is wonderful – you can more or less wear what you want and do what you want with a sense of complete freedom!

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