Call Them Zoomers!

They were the hip and informal generation that didn’t want to be addressed traditionally as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” when they became adults because “that’s my father or that’s my mother, that’s not me, they’d protest. Now closing in on the age of 60, Baby Boomers who think of themselves as forever young, are again challenging the vernacular: this time taking on the word “senior.”

If you want to sell a house to a Baby Boomer don’t call him or her a “senior”, advises Blanche Evans, publisher of Agent News and associate editor of Realty Times in an article written for Realtor magazine online offering tips on the politically correct way to handle the age-sensitive generation.

“Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 dislike being called seniors” she writes. “Because of medical and general health advances in knowledge, boomers at age 50 may believe that they have another 50 years to live” And “senior” refers to their mother or father or their grandmother…”not me.”

A survey in the States found 63% of 1,000 people surveyed earlier this year thought “Baby Boomers” should be referred to as “Zoomers” for the rest of their lives.

Irritated by the stereotypes of aging and traditional retirement, leading edge Baby Boomers launched the first National Zoomer Day on March 21st featuring events to show off just how active they and will be after age 55. “Zoomers led the extreme sports events at “Take Back the Beach Spring Break” events in Florida and Arizona, long considered the bedrock of retired Americans and the destinations of many retired Canadian snowbirds.

Dodi Barnard, who advocates for seniors as a community development worker with Strathcona County Family and Community Services, thinks the seeds of boomer discontent with their parents’ language were sown when more people started taking early retirement. Before that, 65 was generally the mandatory age of retirement and people tended to work right to the end, she says. “When you retired, you automatically became a senior.”

“Over time the trend has been to take a buy-out package at the age of 55 or 60 or even 50, but still, automatically, if you’re retired, you’re considered a senior.”

Federal legislation defines senior as 65 and older when it comes to income security programs such as Old Age Security, but the government’s Seniors Canada On-line information web site refers to seniors as 55+.

Barnard says the “senior” issue has come to a head with the growing realization that there are permanently retired folk younger than 65 who are healthier, more active, have better incomes and who are living longer than seniors of preceding generations.

At the same time, with the rise in the cost of living, many boomers see themselves having to work part-time after they “retire” to maintain their quality of life and as long as they’re still working, they’re not seniors. Younger seniors do take offence when they’re called seniors, she finds.

“They don’t relate when you talk about seniors’ programming or seniors’ centres. They say ‘I’m too young to go there. I don’t need to go there.’ They have this vision of a seniors centre as being a place for old people.”

There’s a huge, huge difference between a 55 year old and an 80 year old, Barnard acknowledges, so she’s trying to encourage seniors organizations to be more open with different activities to encourage younger seniors, retired people.

“I’m currently working on a brochure for all the seniors centres to help encourage membership and I’m thinking if we called it the Sherwood Oak Activity Centre for Individuals 55 Years and Older if would be much more attractive than “for seniors,” she says.

Some older seniors, who wear the word like a badge of honor, are resistant to change arguing that it’s been that way for 30 years, but membership in seniors organizations will continue to stagnate, Barnard says, unless something changes.

“I’ve said to the seniors groups I turn 54 this year so I’m only a year away from being eligible to be a member and quite frankly, I’m not ready to be a member and attend on a regular basis (to visit and play cards) because I’m too active, I still downhill ski.”

One service coordinator for a retirement community in Mississippi found using the word senior was like posting a “Boomers not welcome” sign. When she changed program literature to refer to senior aerobics as “ageless fitness,” boomers started signing up.

Roger Laing, executive director of the Society for the Retired & Semi Retired, predicts boomers won’t use the name senior to apply to themselves until they’re well into their 70s or 80s, if ever. “I think as long as they’re active, fully engaged and occupied, their perception is they’re not seniors yet,” he says.

Boomers most likely to be bothered by the word probably have an issue with age – any age. They probably lamented turning 30, 40 and 50 says Ursula Altmann, executive director of the West Edmonton Seniors.

“I’m 55 and it’s not an issue for me, it’s just a word,” she says. Baby Boomer Bryan Wallace agrees.
“People who have an issue with age might try harder to avoid it,” he says. “I’m not trying to look younger, whereas people who do have issues with it try and hide the fact. They either dress young or go for facelifts maybe.”

Wallace doesn’t think of himself as a senior but “I can’t change the fact that I’m getting older, all I can do is try and stay active as long as possible,” says the 58 year old who loves to ski and snowboard. “The only issue I have is that my time is getting shorter.”

Sandy Reid, executive director of the Alberta Council on Aging, says boomers send a mixed message about the word senior being applied to them when they decry its reference one minute yet gladly help themselves to senior’s discounts which are offered by some companies to people as young as 55.

“I think they should be proud of being seniors because to me it means they’ve lived a full life and they’re contributing to our society,” Reid says.

As for the perception that seniors are old and frail, “we call those myths because the majority of seniors are still very active in their lives and statistically, the majority of volunteer work is done by seniors today,” Reid says.

By Chris Zdeb
CanWest News Service