Can we call older people “OAPs” or should it be “pensioners”?

Angus Hanton looks for the most appropriate term to match this ever larger, fitter and healthier cohortSenior Man Working With Weights In Gym

There are more than 10 million over 65 year-olds in the UK, and that number is increasing fast  (by 2050 it will be close to 20 million), so we will be referring to a much larger chunk of the population in future when we discuss the over 65s. In the past and for many years the term Old Age Pensioner was used, generally shortened to OAP, which reflected our love of three letter acronyms as well as being flexible enough to work when the pension age changed, and to cover it being different for men and women. But has that phrase become dated or, worse, is it now politically incorrect?

OAP has the disadvantage that it might seem to tell older people three times that they are old – Old, Aged and Pensioners – which might be rubbing it in a bit. But it does have its advantages for political discourse, because it reminds policy-makers that certain benefits were originally created for those who really needed them – recipients were intended to be older, retired and needy.

Matching the description

Remembering these criteria might have helped avoid the present situation where many benefits go to those in their early or mid-sixties even if they are not yet drawing their pension and even if they are still working – such as free travel and tax-free winter fuel payments. If we had focused more on what we meant by Old Age Pensioner we might have realised that many pensioners at 65 are far from old: 65 is “the new 55” and people are remaining fit for much longer. So the more politically correct terms such as “pensioner”, “older person” or possibly “senior citizen” do indeed feel kinder: they do the job at a personal level. But in talking to policy-makers we should perhaps insist on using “OAP” to remind them that it is the elderly and vulnerable who need looking after rather more than the healthy, working and comfortably-off 65 year olds.

Perhaps OAP as a description has gone out of fashion for other reasons. It could be that labelling older people so distinctively is rather pejorative and puts them into a box as a minority, albeit a large one, whereas in fact they are a very diverse group – the main thing they have in common is that they’ve been around a bit longer than the majority.

It could simply be that each generation likes to invent its own phrase because the labels of earlier times get laden with the prejudice from which the new generation wants to escape. For example, we don’t refer any longer to handicapped people, or even disabled people but prefer to say “people with disabilities” or even “less physically able”. So moving away from “Old Age Pensioner” may be partly a matter of taking a more positive attitude towards the older group within our population.

Elders and betters?

For older citizens there will always be less affectionate terms like “wrinklies” or “coffin dodgers”, which could hardly replace the term OAP but they do remind us that inevitably as we get older our life expectancy falls and our health is more likely to fail.

From a strategic point of view perhaps we might want to refer to older people as MDPs, “more dependent people”, to make us think in terms of their real needs, but from a personal point of view there may be phrases that show more respect. Maybe we should replace “OAPs” with something like the term “Elders” which in a single word suggests age as well as respect.  Critically, however, respect for our elders will be increased if we find ways to give them government benefits more according to their needs than according to their age.