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The Elderly vs. The Middle Age: Who Is A Senior Citizen, Who Is Middle Aged And Why?

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Terms such as "senior" and "old" have proven difficult to define, as reflected in the results of a recent Marist poll.

If age is indeed a number, where do Americans draw the line between middle-aged and elderly?

To people age 45 and younger, the line of demarcation for "old or middle-aged" is 61, according to a recent survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults by The Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. Not surprisingly, people who find themselves on the far side of age 61 "tend to see it [as] young."

These findings echo those of a survey by the Pew Research Center , which concluded that older people felt younger than their chronological age, while younger people defined "old" as much younger than did older survey respondents.

A traditional means of assessing when one has chronologically surpassed middle age is Social Security collection, which for many years began at age 65, though now those born after 1959 must wait until is age 67 for full benefits. This controversial change was intended to reflect the fact that Americans are living longer, among other demographic changes -- so the definition of "old" is perhaps determined by life expectancy, and thus ever in flux. (And despite the longevity revolution, lots of boomers have started receiving Social Security benefits -- 63 percent of 65-year-olds, according to a recent MetLife study.)

Another traditional source of an old-age definition has been the time-honored senior citizen discount, though this isn't clear cut either: the Chicago Sun-Times reports that McDonalds is willing to classify customers looking for a discount as senior if they are 50, 55, 60 (depending on who you ask), or simply if they "look it." So not only is the cut-off vague, but appearance can outweigh birthdate as the determining factor, at least in face-to-face social interactions involving burgers and fries.

Perhaps the solution is to skip the labels entirely. In April the Spokesman-Review asked readers to pick a new name for the baby boomers -- and called the effort a "failed search" after receiving an overwhelming variety of responses. They included a spectrum of agedness (young-old versus old-old versus oldest-old) and various labels -- "New Agers," "Respected Elders," and "Generation Botox," reflecting the particular character of a generation that has been so keen to define itself as distinct. Age is indeed a slippery concept to define, and is perhaps best left in the eye of the beholder, or better yet, the beheld.

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