Adventures In Agelessness

We live in an age when people increasingly refuse to act their age. The young (or many of them) yearn to be older, while the older (or many of them) yearn to be younger. We have progressively demolished the life cycle's traditional stages, shortening childhood and following it with a few murky passages. Adolescence--imagined as a pleasant mix of adult rights without adult responsibilities--begins before puberty and, for some, lasts forever. Middle age, which once arrived in the mid-30s or early 40s, has been pushed back well beyond 50 or even 60. As for old age, it is rarely mentioned until the paraphernalia of physical decay (canes, walkers, wheelchairs) make it moot.

This drift into age denial is everywhere. The Washington Post reported last week that preteen boys are increasingly into body-building. One 12-year-old said that he started lifting weights when he was 7 and can now bench-press 80 pounds. He told the Post that his girlfriend likes his muscles, particularly his biceps. Of course, the boys are simply following girls who, at ever-younger ages, have been baring midriffs, shortening shorts and slathering themselves in cosmetics--all to look older and sexier. For both, consumerism begins early. Typical 8- to 14-year-olds now spend--from allowances, jobs and gifts--about $1,294 a year ($25 a week), says MarketResearch.com.

Sports is another area where adult practices have filtered down to youth. Thirty years ago, sports didn't become seriously organized for most children--with the exception of Little League--until high school. Now soccer, basketball and hockey leagues begin at 4, 5 and 6. Older kids graduate to "travel" teams with demanding schedules. Players have matching warm-up uniforms. Their jerseys often have their names. Even at tender ages, athletic talent is viewed as a paying proposition--the path to a "good" college or even lucrative contracts. The New York Times Magazine recently ran a profile of Dylan, a 4-year-old skateboarder who already has endorsements. "I think kids are just getting really advanced as human beings now," said one sponsor.

In the same spirit, adults are getting advanced as kids. American Demographics magazine, a gold mine of social trends, reports this: "A quarter century ago, the typical motorcycle rider was a male under 25 who would take off on his motorcycle to find freedom... In 1998 [the average owner] was 38 years old, up from 27 in 1980. The majority--60 percent--were 35 or older." Motorcycle makers "are pursuing these older, richer Boomer thrill seekers."

The discovery at, say, 51 that life has disappointed inspires some people to act as though they're 21. "Roaring down a mountain trail on an all-terrain vehicle [ATV], I careen among ruts, rocks and towering fir trees," writes Sue Shellenbarger, author of The Wall Street Journal's excellent Work & Family column. "Heart pounding, I accelerate, reveling in the speed." Shellenbarger admitted to a "midlife crisis." Her marriage had dissolved; her father had died. She took up skiing, rock climbing, ATVs--and bed rest. After she gunned the ATV, it flipped, dislocating her collarbone and leaving her badly bruised. Less dramatically, as NEWSWEEK pointed out a few weeks ago, countless parents need to reinvent themselves when their last children leave for college and they become empty nesters.

Indeed, there are safer ways to seem younger. In 2002, Americans spent $7.7 billion on 6.9 million cosmetic procedures, says the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. This was more than triple the number in 1997 (2.1 million), and included 1.7 million Botox injections for facial wrinkles, 495,000 "chemical peels,'' 125,000 face-lifts and 83,000 "tummy tucks." Women accounted for 88 percent of these. Men more commonly resorted to Rogaine and Viagra (2002 sales: $1 billion). For everyone, there's an Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, which denies that "aging is natural and inevitable."

Some criticize these adventures in agelessness. The bioethicist Leon Kass, quoted recently in The Wilson Quarterly, asked what "incentive would there be for the old to make way for the young" if people never physically aged. A new book, "Reclaiming the Game," contends that the "professionalization" of youth sports is weakening academic life even at prestigious colleges--the Ivy League, schools like Williams and Amherst--by leading to an overemphasis on recruiting and consuming too much of students' time. And countless psychologists and social workers have warned against the dangers of young girls' dressing seductively. ("When young girls wear these clothes," said one, "they are probably going to get attention they're not ready for.")

The protests, right or wrong, are futile, for the influences they oppose are too entrenched. It's not simply that the mass media celebrate youth, beauty and vigor--the ideal age seems to be about 26--and thereby taunt anyone younger or older. Beyond that, the American obsession with the "pursuit of happiness" admits few natural limits, so why should anyone's age be a disqualification for anything? These are powerful forces, which are sometimes helped along by something else--a little old-fashioned foolishness.