News and Tribune

March 8, 2013

STAWAR: The senior discount: Asset or insult?

By TERRY STAWAR
Local columnist

— Recently, I was paying for some books at a thrift shop and the clerk asked me if I was “of a certain age.” At first I had no idea what she was talking about, and then it dawned on me that she was asking me (rather obliquely) if I qualified for the “senior discount.”

I try not to be sensitive about my age, but I don’t like when people try to rush me. My wife Diane had a similar experience recently when an intrusive insurance saleswoman improperly assumed that she would be interested in Medicare supplemental insurance. Whatever happened to tact?

A few years ago, a middle aged woman wrote in to the “Ask Amy” syndicated advice column, describing how upset she was when a store clerk offered her a senior discount. Hundreds of baby boomers wrote in to columnist Amy Dickenson, offering their sympathy and support for the woman. 

Let’s face it, when you are offered a senior discount the first message is always, “I think you look old.” The second one isn’t much better: “You’re also probably on a fixed income, so let us help you pay for that purchase.” 

Now these may not be the intended messages, but they’re the ones that people hear. 

According to Brad Tuttle, who covers business and personal finance for Time Magazine, almost 10,000 baby boomers are turning 65 each day. He says “ ... even though baby boomers love getting a deal as much as the next person, they hate the idea of getting a “senior discount” — which is tantamount to accepting the fact that they’re officially old.” 

For the most part, boomers still think that the term “senior citizen” should refer to their parents, the so-called “Greatest Generation.” According to Jo Ann Ewing, a senior services coordinator from Connecticut, “Many individuals in their 70s and 80s are fine with ‘senior’ status and senior savings, while baby boomers mostly are not.”

Some businesses and restaurants have tried to accommodate baby boomers by using euphemisms like “Boomer Bargains” to describe their senior discounts. The American Association of Retired Persons (rebranded simply as AARP) accepts anyone more than 50 years of age, retired or not, and they consistently use the term “member” rather than senior. They are also careful to refer to their specially negotiated discounts as “member benefits” rather than “senior discounts.”

Former organizational development consultant Roland Hansen has recently complied a comprehensive list of many well-known businesses that offer senior discounts on his blog (rolandsramblings.wordpress.com/2012/05/24/discounts-for-senior-citizens). Caroline Mayer, a consumer reporter who worked for The Washington Post, warns, however, that senior discounts are not always the best deal. She says that other promotions that are available to the general public, regardless of age, are often better bargains. 

One investigative reporter found that the senior checking account at one bank actually was much more expensive than the regular checking account the bank offered. In addition, Mayer says you may be able to save even more through bargain websites, like Groupon or Priceline, than you can with a senior discount 

In 1997, political scientist Ted Rueter wrote an editorial in the Christian Science Monitor titled “Senior Citizen Discounts are Affirmative Action for the Wealthy,” in which he called for an end to senior discounts saying, “They cost American business billions of dollars. They breed resentment among the young. They are part of the battle over generational equity [and] They are probably unconstitutional.” 

Just last year, a USA Today op-ed piece written by a journalist named Don Campbell (a senior himself) again argued that senior discounts should be eliminated mainly because, older folks, on the average, are considerably wealthier than young adults, who end up subsidizing the discounts. 

Research conducted by the Pew Research Center reveals the gradually increasing net worth of people over 65 and the simultaneous decreasing net worth in households headed by people under 35. Many senior discounts start at the age of 50 or 55, which is usually prior to retirement for most Americans and are often a worker’s peak earning years. 

Young single parents are probably a more deserving demographic group for such discounts, but of course senior discounts are not based on altruism. Originally, they were intended to encourage older people, with fixed incomes, to make purchases they might otherwise avoid. 

Today, however, they are clearly designed to attract an expanding market segment that has lots of disposable income, as well as lots of time to shop. Jim Gilmartin, the owner of Coming of Age, a marketing company specializing in reaching older consumers, says that senior discounts “sort of exploded exponentially as older shoppers came to represent a fast-growing demographic.” 

Campbell concluded his anti-discount tirade saying, “What I wonder about is why thirty- and forty-somethings aren’t livid that senior citizens — the most pampered, patronized and pandered-to group in America — get to save money simply by maintaining a pulse.” 

Personally, it’s not so much getting older that bothers me as constantly having it pointed out in unexpected ways. Not that long ago, Diane and I went to a restaurant where they featured live music at night. After a while, I went up to the counter and ordered a pizza. The cheery waitress, who looked to be about 12 years old, took my money and said that she would bring it to our table when it was ready. 

The room was very crowded, so I was surprised when 10 minutes later the girl arrived and delivered the pizza right to us, without any difficulty or hesitation. I was innocently eating a slice and enjoying the music when I absentmindedly looked at the back of my receipt. There written quite clearly were the unforgiving words: “Old guy in blue shirt.” And I didn’t even get a discount. 

I’ve read where people have successfully sued businesses where employees have written insulting comments or discriminatory descriptions on receipts to be able to remember the customer. I’m afraid my only grounds for going to court would be that my shirt was actually more of a teal than blue. Frankly, I’m just happy she didn’t write down “Fat, bald and stupid old guy in a blue shirt.”

In a recent study, several age-related terms were evaluated by a sample of adults who were all 65 years or older. Results showed that the labels “third age” and “elderly” evoked quite negative associations, while several other names (including “seniors”) were generally seen as favorable, despite many baby boomers’ objections. I’m pretty sure that the label “Old guy in a blue shirt” was not among those tested, but I’m confident that it would not have fared very well. 

Some folks don’t seem to have much of a problem with their age. Glenn from our Sunday School class tells us that for his part-time job, he has to deal with lots of out-of-towners. He says these clients frequently ask him for recommendations about where to go “to have a good time.” While they seem to expect some sort of risqué suggestion, he says he always tells them, “I’m 65, I go to Bob Evans for fun.” 

 

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Check out his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com