9/14/2021 | By Terri L. Jones

The word “senior” is as much a part of our everyday parlance as “boomer” and “millennial”; however, this term is far more ambiguous. After all, what is a senior? For one, there isn’t a clear definition of what it means to be a senior citizen (Merriam-Webster defines it with another equally obscure term, “elderly”), but more importantly, there’s no definitive starting line for when you become one.


No doubt, there are a lot of people out there trying to nail down a number. The World Economic Forum (WEF) defines old age not as the specific number of years you have on this planet but instead as the number of years you have left (their estimate is an average of 15). Similarly, Stanford economics professor John Shoven determined that you are old when your likelihood of dying within the next year is 2 percent or more, and very old when it reaches 4 percent or more. By Shoven’s calculus, American men are considered old when they pass 70 and “very old” age at about 76, and American women are old over 73, while 80-year-old women are “very old.”


And of course, everyone has their own idea about when those golden years begin. In a Pew Research Center survey, 18- to 29-year-olds believed a person to be old at 60. Conversely, those who had reached 65 themselves kicked the can down the road quite a ways and said they wouldn’t be old until they turned 74.

Many other benchmarks to define “what is a senior”

Aside from scientific research and subjective opinions, the world has quite a few other ways to usher you into this stage of life. AARP starts sending you magazines when you turn 50, and some restaurants and retailers give senior discounts to those 55 and older. At 59½, you can take money out of your retirement accounts without penalty, and at 62, collect Social Security benefits. And when you turn 65, you qualify for Medicare.

Then there are the physical signs, like gray hair, wrinkles and aching joints, and the life events, such as retiring from your job and becoming a grandparent.

But in the end, being a senior is nothing more than a social construct. As my 85-year-old aunt says, “In my mind, I’m still 40.” And that’s all that really matters!

Terri L. Jones

Terri L. Jones has been writing educational and informative topics for the senior industry for over ten years, and is a frequent and longtime contributor to Seniors Guide.

Terri Jones