For the first time since they began arriving after World War II, the 78 million Americans of the "baby boom" are being courted by large numbers of marketers not for their seemingly endless youth but for their encroaching middle age.
As the baby boomers begin to bulge, sag and squint their way into their mid-40s, companies are striking gold with products that offer a bit of youth to these aging yuppies -- a group that demographers are calling grumpies, for grown-up, mature professionals.
Retailers are ringing up profits with such products as wide-seated jeans, frilly girdles and expensive bifocals without telltale lines in the lenses.
This month, in several states, RJR Nabisco introduced miniature Oreos intended to give baby boomers a taste from childhood without adding to their anxieties over their waistlines. Haagen-Dazs recently added a smaller ice-cream bar.
And the makers of Lee's jeans has begun a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign aimed at jeans-wearers with youthful hearts but expanding behinds.
Driving such innovations, analysts say, is a belief that the success of many products in the 1990s will depend on how well they adapt to agreat transition in the population, as Americans born between 1946 and 1964 move into their middle years.
In a sense, the makers and marketers of consumer products say that they will have to make the transition more gracefully than the grumpies, the most affluent baby boomers, who have shown signs of fighting middle age every step of the way.
"You have a lot of people who have been nurtured, groomed, coddled and almost brainwashed to think of themselves as youthful," said Jeff Ostroff, director of Primelife Marketing, a group in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., that advises marketers who want to reach older consumers. "To maintain that perception as the with-it generation, this group of people will fight."
The graying of the baby boomers will affect nearly every aspect of society, from housing to medical care to the nation's savings rates.
But nowhere is the impact more visible than in the world of consumer products, where this generation, because of its disproportionate size, has commanded the attention of companies since the days of the Hula-Hoop and the Davy Crockett cap.
In the $7 billion jeans industry, for example, Lee Apparel Co.'s new ad campaign began Aug. 2 with television commercials showing men struggling to pull on their old jeans. The campaign uses slogans like: "Forget about cholesterol. It's your jeans that have been cutting off your circulation."
For years, jeans-makers sold more than half of their products to consumers 14 to 24 years old, and the companies' advertising was crowded with young, slim models. But now, more than 60 percent of jeans buyers are over 25, and Levi Strauss & Co. has sharply increased its market share with "relaxed fit" jeans aimed at people in their 30s and 40s.
"We had aimed at the hip and trendier, younger market, and we found that we were alienating our prime consumers, who were 25 to 40 years old," said Joe Pacifico, vice president of marketing for Lee. "We don't want to lose them to khaki pants."
As the most affluent part of the baby-boom generation, grumpies are the favorite target for marketers.
Opticians, for example, report a rising market in line-less, bifocal glasses, camouflage for a sign of middle age. Even though the lenses cost twice as much as the standard bifocals with the lines, sales to new customers jumped more than 50 percent in the last two years, said Irving Bennett of the Optical Laboratories Association, an industry trade group.
"When the doctor said I needed bifocals, I thought: 'No way!' " said Linda Sterling, an engineer from Plainsboro, N.J., who discovered line-less bifocals and leaped to pay $300 for a pair in Ralph Lauren frames. "I refuse to get old. I just will not get old. Age is just a mindset."
Despite creaking knees and aching backs, many running buffs of a decade ago are still buying shoes on the cutting edge of technology -- even for exercise that now rarely takes them faster than 4 miles an hour. Last year, sales of walking shoes in the United States topped $1.5 billion, twice the dollar sales of running shoes, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.
Demographers say that in coming years, grumpies may find it increasingly hard to buy the non-essential consumer products they could always easily afford.