After throwing their demographic weight around for decades, baby boomers, that most self-involved of generations, may finally have met a challenge they can't bully their way past:
The oldest boomers are turning 50 this year, a breathtaking milestone when you belong to a generation that has relentlessly celebrated its youth.
Middle age? When you spent your teens advising the world never to trust anyone over 30?
This is a generation in denial. Sociologists and marketers say that boomers, bathed in society's attention from their childhoods, will begin to see themselves fading as the favored market for advertisers, the lead characters in movies, the rising business executives.
That realization, difficult for any generation, is particularly hard for a group consumed with itself.
"Boomers don't think of 50 as an older age," said J. Walker Smith, managing partner of Yankelovich Partners, a public opinion survey firm. "Boomers are eternally youthful.
"They've always upped the ante on middle age. When they turned 30, we asked them when middle age began, and they said 40. When they turned 40, they said 50."
Tom Caplan, a Baltimore novelist who turns 50 this fall (just weeks after his Georgetown University roommate Bill Clinton), says his cure for the gloom that descends on him when he thinks about aging is "very simple: I just pretend I'm 20."
That may work for a while. Many boomers believe they look better and feel better than their parents did at mid-life. And they see good looks and good health stretching on for a good while.
Didn't Farrah Fawcett pose for Playboy last year at 49? Doesn't President Clinton jog regularly? Aren't 40-ish movie stars commanding leading roles?
Delusions, some sociologists say.
"They believe unrealistically their privileged position will go on indefinitely," says Jack Levin, professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University. "It just won't."
Aging baby boomers will begin to cut back and face life on fixed incomes. And then, Levin says, they'll learn that much of their clout came not from their great wisdom or sheer numbers but from their spending power.
"There's a rude awakening in store," Levin says. "Even the most financially secure of them, even the millionaires, are going to cut their spending."
Advertisers and retailers will stop catering to the aging boomers and look instead for younger, richer markets.
"It doesn't mean baby boomers will be living in poverty. It means they're going to have to give up their place as the cultural kingpins of America."
Which will come as a shock.
Strength in numbers
Experts warn against generalizations, and the boomer generation is as diverse as any group. They comprise different income groups, different races, different education levels.
They are tossed together because the generation's size has had such impact on society.
From the time they were children demanding that their parents buy them Howdy Doody puppets or Davy Crockett caps, boomers have been a retailer's dream.
Advertisers adore them. Boomers make up a market of 76 million people born between 1946 and 1964, the largest and best-educated generation in American history. They consume. They indulge.
They believe they were born to break the rules. By their sheer numbers, they've dominated the culture.
Boomers wore outrageous miniskirts and suburban matrons raised their hems, too. Boomers grew their hair long and executives began letting curls fall over their ears. Rock music, Eastern philosophies, two-income households -- they all became part of the mainstream because boomers made them so.
Their parents, who weathered the Depression and World War II, rushed to satisfy their whims. It surprised no one that the boomers developed "a very strong sense of entitlement, a very high sense of expectations," Smith says.
"We grew up with an enormous number of certitudes, a sense of infinitely expanding horizons and possibilities," Caplan says. "Things were great and they would become greater."
But after years in which they felt free to experiment with sex and drugs, to quit jobs because they were sure they'd always find another, boomers have found that real life intrudes on their sense of invulnerability.
Marriages have broken up. Parents have died. Jobs have disappeared because of corporate downsizing.
"What we've seen in the last few years is a growing sense among boomers that they can't always win," Smith says.
Eventually, advertisers will move beyond the post-war generation and begin marketing to younger people.
"Historically, advertising has been written for boomers," he says. "TV grew up with the boomers. They have always been in the know, gotten all the inside jokes. But I don't think that's going to last forever. What are boomers going to do when all the jokes are written for [Generation] Xers?"