business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

The Wall Street Journal has a story about how bay boomers are “particularly self-conscious” about the words used to describe them, and different people feel differently about different words.

The Journal writes that “labels constantly evolve, says Jeremy Wallach, an anthropologist who specializes in linguistics and teaches in the Department of Popular Culture at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University. A once-acceptable word or phrase accumulates negative connotations and is replaced by another. ‘Aged’ evolved into ‘senior citizen,’ which evolved into ‘older adult.’ Some, like ‘geezer,’ were never acceptable.”

Among the words now being bandied about to describe baby boomers: “Perennial.” “Vintage” “Golden ager.”

“Generational labels, which cover people from different social, economic and cultural backgrounds, are especially imprecise,” the Journal notes. “There are healthy 80-year-olds and frail ones. The 60-plus population includes the so-called Greatest and Silent Generations, referring to those born in the early 1900s to 1945, who think and feel very differently about age and propriety.”

I had to shake my head a little ruefully when I read this story; it seemed so emblematic of what’s wrong about the culture in general and my generation in particular. We’re more concerned about what we’re called and how we’re defined by others than who we are, what we do, and how we do it.

(They accuse millennials of being self-absorbed, but I don’t think they have any corner on the market for narcissism .)

I have to admit that I’m as guilty of this as anyone. The other day I was out jogging, and there was a young fellow walking several dogs in the opposite direction. I said, “Good morning” (I’m a friendly guy), and he looked at me and responded, “Good morning, sir.”

“Sir?” When did that happen?

I got over it, though. I’ve had to, since I’ve noticed that I get called “sir” more and more lately. I had to make a decision - be offended by it, or just realize that people are just trying to be polite. The latter seems like a far better way to go.

Perhaps this concern about self image is inevitable. After all, we were raised in a world where branding became more prevalent than ever, largely because of the dominance and influence of mass media. We’ve been taught to define ourselves by the products we eat and drink, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the homes we live in and the furnishings we buy for them. We’ve been told to think of ourselves as a brand … and it becomes hard to differentiate between how we define ourselves by the brands we buy and use, or how our individuality is reflected by the brands we buy and use.

And so of course the words used to describe us matter. Even if they shouldn’t.

And the brands that are being marketed to us have to keep these concerns in mind, understanding that the wrong word or attitude can alienate an existing or potential customer. (Hint: Don’t start a cold call by saying, “Hello, Senior.” That’s a conversation starter that, at least in my home, pretty much ends the conversation.)

Brands have to keep their Eyes Open. And their ears. And their minds.

By the way … the Journal article made mention of a few other terms for aging baby boomers.

One of my least favorites: “Fall risk.”

One of my favorites: “Lucky.”
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