Excessive DNA damage can induce an irreversible cell cycle arrest, called senescence, which is generally perceived as an important tumour-suppressor mechanism. However, it is unclear how cells decide whether to senesce or not after DNA damage. By combining experimental data with a parameterized mathematical model we elucidate this cell fate decision at the G1-S transition. Our model provides a quantitative and conceptually new understanding of how human fibroblasts decide whether DNA damage is beyond repair and senesce. Model and data imply that the G1-S transition is regulated by a bistable hysteresis switch with respect to Cdk2 activity, which in turn is controlled by the Cdk2/p21 ratio rather than cyclin abundance. We experimentally confirm the resulting predictions that to induce senescence i) in healthy cells both high initial and elevated background DNA damage are necessary and sufficient, and ii) in already damaged cells much lower additional DNA damage is sufficient. Our study provides a mechanistic explanation of a) how noise in protein abundances allows cells to overcome the G1-S arrest even with substantial DNA damage, potentially leading to neoplasia, and b) how accumulating DNA damage with age increasingly sensitizes cells for senescence.