It's a basic, unsophisticated number, nothing but the joining of two digits that stands between 39 and 41. But it sits in front of me forebodingly and unavoidably because it represents the birthday I mark Thursday.
You will notice I hesitate to use the word celebrate.
This moment in life is at once both simple and difficult to comprehend. My birthdays have always just been days that arbitrarily marked the passing of one year to the next. The 30th, billed by the cliche-makers when I was in my 20s as the passage from trustworthiness to untrustworthiness, was without incident.
This Is Different
But this . . . this is different. And from what I can find out about this 40 business, I am not alone. Today marks the first day of the first year in which my generation starts to turn 40. We must face the reality that we are the youth revolution no longer. We have had our Woodstock, and whatever it symbolized for us passed into history 16 years ago.
I speak here about the glut of 60 million of us (or however many have survived, past Vietnam and the other tragedies or denouements of our developing lives, until now) that has rewritten most, if not all, of the social conventions we have chosen to challenge and now is ready to encounter, to use a buzzword of our time, middle age.
One of our constants has been our contempt for this phase of life. Because of our numbers, we have been able to exert irresistible forces on the marketplace, turning American culture into one whose youth orientation has gone substantially beyond the point of self-indulgence. Being old has seemed impossible to us and being middle aged most certainly abhorrent.
But now we are about to pass into it ourselves. We will demand--and our numbers make it near certain we will attain--a respect, respectability and legitimacy for middle age that we ourselves refused to accord it. We will probably not acknowledge our hypocrisy.
They say 30 is harder for women than it is for men and that 40 is just the reverse. Whoever they are, they are right, I think. My 30th birthday was just another winter day spent in Chicago. With turning 40 looming in California, I have spent the last six months or so thinking about the reality of attaining an age that has hitherto seemed so removed from how I saw myself and my life.
I'm atypical to some extent in that I'm less than a year into my first marriage. But both my wife (who follows me across the 40 barrier nine months from now) and I have been in long-term live-in relationships--of the type our generation forced into acceptability--that failed. In other senses, though, my experience, I suppose, is stereotypical. Talking to a 39-year-old doctor and avid runner a few weeks ago, I observed that I've been waiting for the first signs of physical slowing, but that I haven't yet detected them.
I still outplay 22-year-olds in racquetball and my coordination and strength are, if anything, better now than they were in high school. "You shouldn't feel any deterioration," the doctor observed, reassuring both of us. "I don't."
Volume of Procreation
This process that is flinging us all at the reality of 40 began in 1946, when the first 3.4 million of us came into the world--a volume of procreation that, in one year, increased the nation's birth rate by nearly four per 1,000 women, from 20.4 in 1945 to 24.1 the next year. As such statistics go, that is stupendous. Things continued that way until 1961, which some statisticians see as the final year of the genuine Baby Boom. In that year, 4.35 million babies were born. Other observers say the high water mark was 1957, when fertility rates , as opposed to the number of births, apparently peaked. I'm not sure it matters.
We have been known by a term I despise: the Baby Boom generation or, even more distastefully, Boomers. But whatever you call us, we have chronicled ourselves and been chronicled as we have passed through every phase of life.
And we have taught demographers, sociologists and psychologists that we have little respect for the norms established by generations before us. Such people have come to agree that there should be little, if any, reason to expect that the way we touch and pass beyond 40 will be predictable--least of all, for us--either.
Since I and my fellow early January Capricorns are only today beginning to smash the 40 barrier, there may still be millions of our generational companions who have not reflected yet on what is about to occur. So I made a few phone calls last week to explore the phenomenon, starting with one to Landon Y. Jones, author of "Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation." It is a book published five years ago but which, Jones tells me, will be reissued next summer in paperback.