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Ignore the Labels

October 17, 2010

The other day in the mail I received a copy of “The Pensioner’s Handbook”. I was stunned. Outraged! Insulted! I am not a pensioner!!! Pensioners are little old white-haired people who can barely see over the steering wheels of the giant boats of cars that they drive around town at well below the posted speed limit. They are the elderly men who congregate in the food courts at the mall, sipping endless cups of Tim Horton’s coffee.  They are the grandmotherly women who get together twice a week in church basements to knit endless woollen hats, scarves, and pairs of mittens to sell at holiday bazaars.  That is most certainly not me!

“Oh, but it is,” a little voice in my head insisted. “You receive a pension (albeit a very small one) … ergo, you are a pensioner.”  OUCH! 

Thinking about this (okay, okay … stewing about this) got me wondering.  Where do some of our everyday labels – and the (often negative) connotations associated with them – come from?  And why do we have such a hard time NOT using them? Why do we have a need to categorize people in ways that remove their uniqueness, their rareness, their individuality?  I suppose, perhaps, we want to know that others are ‘like’ us (or ‘not like’ us) and so – as a species – we have come up with any number of classifications and labels to describe the similarities and differences between us.

Pair of pensionersTake ‘pensioner’ for example (yeah, I’m still on that one!)  It is a commonly used term in the United Kingdom (although on this side of the Atlantic, it has been mostly replaced by the term ‘senior citizen’ … more on that one later) and refers to someone who is receiving a pension (‘post-employment income paid by either a former employer and/or the government’).  Since Otto von Bismarck (1st Chancellor of the German empire and a dominant figure in world affairs during the Industrial Revolution) instituted the ‘Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill of 1889’, the ‘age of retirement’ has generally been considered to be 65 (chosen because hardly anyone lived beyond that age at the time – life expectancy in 1889 was 45 – and Otto figured anyone who lived and worked longer than that deserved a bit of pleasure at the end, subsidized partially by the Government).  Here in Canada we no longer have a mandatory retirement policy and many people work well into their seventies or eighties (on the other hand, some manage to retire ‘early’ – in their late fifties or early sixties).  Eventually though, just about every living Canadian will qualify for the label of ‘pensioner’. 

However, many people will find themselves categorized as ‘senior citizens’ even before they start reaping the hefty financial rewards (ha ha) of a lifetime of servitude. I suppose someone, somewhere, at some time, thought the term ‘senior citizen’ (often shortened simply to ‘senior’) was a more cultured way of describing ‘elderly’ individuals who had retired from their ‘life’s work’.  However, considering every one of us (from the age of … oh, I don’t know, two seconds) is ‘senior’ to someone else, and we are all ‘citizens’ (of this town, province, country, planet), then it’s something of a misleading term, isn’t it? 

One of the first definitions returned by a Google search (‘define senior citizen’) was this: ‘a person of relatively advanced age, especially a person at or over the age of retirement’.  Hmmmm … words like ‘relatively’ and ‘especially’ concern me.  To anyone under the age of 21, people over 30 are already ‘of relatively advanced age’ and ‘especially’ is a qualifier that – in this case – would seem to indicate that a ‘senior citizen’ is almost assuredly also a ‘pensioner’.  But neither of these suppositions is necessarily (or often) true.

I know people who qualify for ‘senior’s discounts’ (which, depending on the organization offering the deal, could be at age 50, 55, 60, or 65) who are neither what I would consider ‘of an advanced age’ (isn’t everyone’s age advancing all the time anyway?!?!?), nor ‘at or over the age of retirement’.  Don’t get me wrong – if a store or restaurant wants to offer me a discount because of the date on my birth certificate, I’m going to take it – but I don’t want to be called a ‘senior citizen’, thank you very much! 

Couple on a motorcycleAnd here’s a label I’ve had assigned to me – usually accompanied by an expression of shock or distaste, or a sort of ‘nudge-nudge, wink-wink’ raising of the eyebrows because of its almost-illicit undertone – ‘biker’ (defined as ‘a person whose lifestyle is centered on motorcycles; may be a member of an outlaw motorcycle club’).  Brings up all sorts of naughty images, doesn’t it?  Black leather, tattoos, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in ‘Easy Rider’ (or Mickey Rourke and Doug Johnson in ‘Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man’), Friday the 13th in Port Dover, newspaper articles and TV shows about gangs of bikers terrorizing towns and little old ladies (oops, sorry … senior citizens) – the list goes on and on.  Yet, the majority of people who ride motorcycles (myself included) only wear leather for protection (road rash is painful and ugly), don’t mark our bodies with tattoos, consider the typical ‘biker’ persona characterized in the media as unrealistic and/or the fringe element, and steer clear of Dover on Friday the 13th because it’s just too darn crowded (and, for the record, my husband and I – and most of the people we know who own bikes [not all of them Harley’s] – have NEVER terrorized anyone except ourselves when riding!) 

Most people who ride on two wheels do so for the sheer joy and freedom of the experience.  Most would prefer to be referred to as ‘motorcyclists’ (‘the act of riding a motorcycle’) but somehow ‘biker’ is almost always used to refer to anyone who owns and rides a two-wheeled vehicle (from ‘crotch rockets’ to the more sedate cruisers and tourers us ‘pensioners’ prefer!)  So, please, the next time you see a group of people (or a single or a two-some) out enjoying a two-wheeled adventure on a sunny weekend afternoon, get the renegade ‘biker’ image right out of your head – okay?

Now, I could go on and on and on (and on and on and on …) about labels of varying types and classifications.  Instead, let’s play a little three-part game.  First, for each of the following ten pairs of labels, pick either the first or the second word to describe someone you know (your spouse/partner, your best friend, your worst enemy, the guy next door …  pick someone you can clearly ‘see’ in your mind’s eye before you start).  If you choose the ‘first’ word in the pair, assign a value of 1; if you choose the ‘second’ word, assign a value of 2 (pretty simple, eh?)  Ready?  Let’s start.

  1. Thin / Fat
  2. Funny / Dull
  3. Smart / Stupid
  4. Rich / Poor
  5. Generous / Greedy
  6. Young / Old
  7. Straight / Gay
  8. Unselfish / Self-Centred
  9. Attractive / Ugly
  10. Friendly / Stand-offish

Now, add up their score before you continue reading. 

So – what do the scores mean?  (I’m going to bet you think a lower score is better, right?!?!?)  No – what the score really means is that you’ve just applied labels to someone that probably don’t reflect who they really are! A label is simply an outsider’s view of someone (or something) that usually has very little to do with who or what you’re labelling.  The numbers mean nothing.

Okay, so here’s Part Two of the game – go back over the list above and ask yourself what each of those labels really means, as you applied it to the person you labelled.  Is it a true reflection of them, or just a – perhaps unjustified – ‘perception’ of your own biases towards someone who is ‘different from’ you?  Come on – be honest!

Finally, for Part Three – go back and label YOURSELF (using the list above).  Oooo, that’s not so much fun, is it?!?!?!? 

Ages and Stages of a woman's lifeOver the years we all take on various labels – some we give to ourselves, some we accept as societal ‘norms’, some are simply applied to us.  At various times, I’ve been a baby, a daughter, a hippie, a college student, a poet, a secretary, a wife, a mother, a teacher / instructor / professor, a lover, a writer, a friend.  I’ve been juvenile, adolescent, middle-aged, and ‘not getting any younger’.  I’ve been employed, unemployed, and self-employed.  I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor (and not just with respect to money).  I’ve been sick and I’ve been healthy.  I’ve been thin and I’ve been ‘heavier than I would like to be’. I’ve been happy and I’ve been sad.  

But through all of it – and under all of it – I’ve really just been ‘me’.  And that’s the only label I want anyone to think of when they meet me (or read what I’ve written).  I am ‘me’ and I’m proud to be everything that encapsulates – including writing from and about … the other side of 55.

I am me

I am proud to be labelled ... "Me"

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2 Comments
  1. Lori permalink
    October 17, 2010 6:25 pm

    Thoroughly enjoyed this one and totally agree! Even though we’re advancing number-wise in years , the mind, soul and body still feel young (well…sometimes!)

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