Commentary

Aging And The Evolution Of Language

“People just don’t know how to write anymore.”

This lamentation was heard in a recent focus group of Boomers and seniors in which I took part. The man who shared this thought admitted that he, himself, was not a writer. But he said what many other people in his age group are feeling — that the written word of today is deteriorating into 140-character-long quips and poorly worded news articles that value being the first on the story instead of proofreading and facts. And he’s not wrong. The English language is constantly changing.

As a marketer working in the aging services space, I am all too familiar with the impact that the language we use has on our potential customers. I’ve worked with retirement communities across the country. Where a newly constructed house might be labeled a “cottage” in one area, the same building would be called a “villa” in another. These subtle differences in language can make or break a marketing campaign. As I reflected on this notion, I started to tie together how changes in the English language relate to the Boomer and senior perception that language isn’t what it used to be.

One of my recent podcast discoveries is a show titled “Lexicon Valley,” hosted by John McWhorter, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. In each episode, McWhorter explores how the English language that we speak today has come to be. He traces the roots of words and sounds back to their origins and demonstrates how language is a constantly changing, ephemeral occurrence. The euphemisms and turns-of-phrase that we employ today become the taboos of tomorrow, forcing us into a constant state of adaptation, trying to stay ahead of the curve of perception.

For example, let us examine the use of the words “elder” and “elderly.” At their basest level, the words simply act as adjectives or nouns to identify a person who is older or more experienced, such as an “elder daughter” or the “elder of a church.” Yet, today, people viscerally respond to being called an “elder,” or even “elderly.” Outside of children being told to respect their elders, very few people want to identify themselves as “elderly” based on age alone. Somewhere along the line, “elder” gave way to “senior” as the preferred term, which was quickly adopted as the new identifier.

Today, we are seeing similar reactions to the use of “senior” in our language. It became too ubiquitous. Boomers don’t identify as “seniors,” even though they may happily accept a “senior discount” at their local restaurant. Marketers are abandoning the word so as not to alienate the Boomer generation, in hopes of cashing in on their stored reserves of wealth. We are living in a period of language transition. Ten years ago, many organizations were happy to identify themselves as a “senior living community.” Today, the search is on for the successor phrase. 

Professionals in retirement communities across the country are actively seeking out alternative phrases. Are they “aging services providers”? Perhaps the more ubiquitous “55+ community” or even “active aging community”? This doesn’t even delve into the issues around specific legal language that might run afoul of the Fair Housing Act. Our endeavors to come up with new, appealing language can easily become a legal minefield if they don’t take into account diversity and laws.

A few years ago, LeadingAge, the nation’s premier association for not-for-profit aging services organizations, asked several marketing agencies to collaborate on this every issue. It wanted to find an alternative to the industry-specific phrase, “Continuing Care Retirement Community” — often abbreviated as “CCRC.” This phrase contained two words that were thought to be turnoffs for Boomers: “retirement” and “care.”

The project was called “NameStorm” and ended up with the unveiling of a new term: “Life Plan Community.” While this term was lauded by many, some have been slow to adopt it. Is it the classic aversion to change, even though the new moniker addresses some of the key concerns consumers have with this category? We are left to wonder: Did this effort help the cause or only muddy the water further with a new term?

Obviously, this change in language is causing a lot of consternation for marketers in the Boomer space. On one hand, people hope to be thought leaders and strike on the phrasing that might be adopted and used by everyone moving forward. On the other hand, they have to continue using some of the older phrases so as not to lose potential customers. It’s all well and good to be “a product for active older adults,” but are people going to search for that phrase online? Will they know it’s a product aimed at addressing their needs if they were to read that in an advertisement? Maybe — maybe not. Only time will tell.

What we know for sure is that the organizations that can adapt and evolve with the changes in the English language will be better poised as marketers in the future. Now is the time to think about how your organization is using language to describe itself and how, in the future, that may need to change.

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