Comment: Plucky editor, 53, bans sprightly, elderly OAPS

Following a lively debate on the EADT letters pages, editor TERRY HUNT ventures into dangerous territory and tackles the issue of how newspapers should describe people who are above the age of 65.

What has prompted this foray into a very dangerous area for newspaper editors? Well, in recent weeks there has been a lively debate in our letters pages about how we should describe people aged 65 and over.

For decades, newspapers up and down the land have labelled those people as “pensioners’’ or, in headlines when space is at a premium, “OAPs.”

Now, though, we are being told that such words, or acronyms, are no longer appropriate. In fact, some tell me, they are insulting.

Those passionate about this issue say it was fine to use the term “pensioner’’ or “OAP’’ when life expectancy was so much shorter, and those people aged over 65 made up a very small percentage of the population.

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Now, however, when we’re told that one-third of the population will very soon be 65 or above, the argument goes that we need to move on and use different descriptive words.

Of course, it doesn’t stop there. Journalists occupy a world in which everybody aged 65 and above who does something energetic is “sprightly.” Every person who qualifies for the State Pension and tackles a burglar or thief is “plucky.”

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Surely that’s just condescending, isn’t it? It pre-supposes that anyone who reaches the age of 65 is old and frail – an embodiment of those road signs depicting the bent and wizened couple with their walking sticks.

I’m sure we all know lots of people in their late 60s, 70s, and 80s who are as fit as a fiddle.

Let’s throw in another complication. There are a significant number of people who have been lucky enough to retire early on a gold-plated company pension.

Equally, as we all know, the age of qualifying for the state pension is to rise inexorably. So, what exactly is a “pensioner?’’

Then there are other words which might or might not be inappropriate. I’m thinking of “elderly,” or “old,” for example.

I’ve been taken to task for using both words recently. One colleague was taken aback to find that a 63-year-old man had been described as elderly. No prizes for guessing the age of our bemused, and slightly irritated, colleague!

Most news reporters working on regional newspapers like the EADT are in their 20s, so they are looking at life from a different perspective compared to slightly older people.

Let’s take the term “middle-aged.” When does “middle-age” start, and when does it end? I’m 53. I would admit to being middle-aged. But I suspect that my teenage children might regard me as elderly!

When does the description “elderly” become appropriate? Do we all wake up one morning to find that we have made the transition from “middle-aged’’ to “elderly?’’

Should newspapers print people’s ages at all? Well, there’s another can of worms. All trainee reporters are taught from day one at journalism school that you must always get the age of the person you are writing about.

This might be edging towards newspaper editor sacrilege, but I don’t entirely agree. Of course, there are many, many stories in which printing the age of a person helps to paint a picture.

For example, a “plucky2 85-year-old hounding a burglar out of his house with a broom handle is rather different to a 25-year-old doing the same thing.

Similarly, a 90-year-old completing the London Marathon is probably a better story than a 20-year-old achieving the same.

In sport, Ipswich Town signing a 23-year-old goalkeeper is better news for fans than the arrival of a 38-year-old keeper. And so it goes on.

But, equally, there are other stories in which the age of the person concerned might not be particularly relevant.

Stories about business ventures, involving “middle-aged” men and women in sensible suits. Are we interested in their age?

Does it matter to us whether they are 35, 45, or 55? Not really. It might be relevant if they were 18, or 80.

OK, after meandering around the subject, I’ll get to the point. I do think that the word “pensioner” is outmoded and probably pretty meaningless these days. The same goes for the acronym “OAP.”

And what do “elderly” and “old” really mean? As I mentioned earlier, “sprightly” and “plucky” are just condescending when used to describe people above a certain age.

So, from today, those words will be banned from the pages of the EADT. Pensioner, OAP, elderly, old (when referring to a person), sprightly and plucky will never be seen in this newspaper again.

We will find other ways to describe people. If we slip up and use the banned terms, I’m sure someone will let me know!

As for the other descriptive words, and people’s ages, we’ll keep them – for the time being.

I look forward to the healthy debate continuing!

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