Growing Up Is Hard to Do

March 18, 1995|By ANDREW RATNER

In a write-up in my college alumni magazine, a woman who was an Olympic-caliber gymnast when we attended school made a startling revelation about her present condition.

''I'm just an old, married person with kids.''

It takes an iron will to admit such a thing.

People the age of my classmate and myself, aka baby boomers, seem to have a horrible time doing that.

Has there ever been a generation that had to be dragged into middle-age kicking and screaming? ''Don't trust anyone over 30'' was the boomers' rallying cry as firebrand adolescents. Now that they're well past 30, they still seem to feel the same way.

The book, ''Life Begins at 40,'' appeared half a century ago, and yet the sentiment today is that life begins and ends at 21. The middle-age set is old enough to recall its own parents at that age, but you would be hard-pressed to find a baby boomer who pictures himself as styleless and stodgy as his parents seemed back then. This push to be forever young appears harmless, but there's a consequential fallout to children that is often overlooked.

A billion-dollar industry nourishes the image of eternal youth with sporty cars, diet drinks, adult blue jeans (''full thigh and seat for extra comfort''), spas and shops like Sharper Image that specialize in adult games. A Dallas-based restaurateur named Dave & Buster's has announced plans to open one of its adult-funhouse bars in Montgomery County, with virtual-realty pods andelectronic simulators.

Even in music, boomer tastes run closer to their children's than to their parents'. In a National Endowment for the Arts study three years ago, about half of people aged 35 to 54 said they liked rock music, compared to 9 percent 65 and older (and 70 percent of people 18 to 24.)

The marketing industry, that sensitive seismometer of trends, has found and fed this vein, or should we say ''vain.'' In one popular television commercial, an extended family is gathered to help a guy celebrate some unspecified mid-life birthday. He blanches at his gifts, including a waist-reducing ''Gut-be-Gone.'' The ad reveals what his id truly covets: a recreational vehicle for wild rides through mud bogs and 10-foot high birthday cakes.

A recent article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal centered on the premise that many adults are refusing to drive mini-vans, or have abandoned them, for fear of being typecast as yet another suburbanite lugging his kids to soccer practice. When one consumer was queried by a marketing researcher about what the ubiquitous, boxy vehicle represents, his response was: ''Family, family family . . . kids, kids, kids, no fun, no fun, no fun.''

Commercials on Saturday morning TV pitch products to children by mocking dorky things that grown-ups do -- with images of Donna Reed and Ozzie Nelson-vintage rather than the adults of the '90s.

''There was once a region of one's life that was clearly the region of the elderly,'' says Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media and culture atJohns Hopkins University. ''Now, one must look boyish or girlish indefinitely.''

He said this transformation struck him when the show ''thirtysomething'' came on the air in the '80s. The dialogue was all witty repartee, dripping with sarcasm and nonchalance -- a more juvenile form of expression than typical mature conversation. Today's popular shows starring people in their 30s and 40s still affect that youthful, carefree swagger: Letterman, Seinfeld, Murphy Brown.

Could there be any harm with middle-agers feeling their oats a little? You're as young as you feel, right?

Two things seem wrong with it.

First, the image is a lie. Most of us weren't suave, sardonic or sexy in our youth. (Those few who truly were cool back in high school are likely in jail.) It's silly for someone to remake himself as the real article now.

Second, and much more important, adults who want to be kids make crummy role models and inattentive parents. Narcissism has a price. When someone is too busy polishing his own persona, it doesn't leave much energy or time for nurturing children. Says Johns Hopkins' Mr. Miller: ''Everyone now sees himself as something to be marketed, and that probably rules out a more self-sacrificing position.''

Perhaps that's a clue to the problem of children seemingly growing up so fast these days.

Adults are growing up too slowly.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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