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ROBIN ABCARIAN

The Truth Is Written All Over Your Face

July 24, 1996|ROBIN ABCARIAN

By now, we have all heard the deeply upsetting news about the graying of the baby boomer generation--how its elders are creaking past the half century mark this year, how they are failing to save enough money for retirement because they foolishly placed their faith in home equity, how that giant sucking sound you will hear in 15 years is the Social Security system going dry as boomers tap it for retirement. Oh, and we all totally know what a bummer boomers are having as they try to explain to their teenagers why it is not OK to smoke pot, have sex or, you know, like, trip out in general.

I happen to have on my desk the silly antidote to all these sodden stories about boomer-driven federal bankruptcy and personal disaster. I have a copy of a document called "The Wrinkle Report: What Baby Boomers Think, Know and Say about Aging in the '90s." Say what you will about the self-delusion of a generation that refuses to believe it can grow old and die. Seriously, go ahead. You will not be exaggerating.

(Because the report, actually a poll conducted by Louis Harris & Associates, was commissioned by a pharmaceutical company that makes anti-aging creams, there is an inordinate amount of space devoted to how boomers feel not just about wrinkles, but about "brown spots," something I never thought to worry about . . . until now.)

According to the poll, boomers--those born between 1946 and 1964--by a huge margin are in serious denial about how old they look. Three in four say they look younger than their years, and eight in 10 say they have fewer signs of facial aging (wrinkles and those now-dreaded brown spots) than other people their age.

As pollsters point out, this is a statistical impossibility.

"You could be in denial two ways," says Louis Harris Vice President Robert Reitman, who is, but more important says he looks, 49 years old. "Either you are 45 and the picture in your mind is a typical 50-year-old. Or you have the proper picture in your mind and think you look younger."

Just the other day, a baby boomer elder I know was telling me that when he looks into a mirror, he sees someone who looks much younger than 50 staring back. But then, he says, sometimes when he's walking down the street daydreaming, he'll catch his reflection in a store window.

Startled, he wonders: Who the hell is THAT old fart?

*

The bookshelves are groaning under the weight of a new literary trend: boomer confessionals on aging.

Those were preceded by the medical tomes, aimed at the vast numbers of women about to make the transition from fecundity to cronehood. Then there was a brief, misguided attempt to sell the idea of a male menopause.

Now a gloom has fallen on the subject, and writers such as Elizabeth Kaye ("Mid-Life: Notes from the Halfway Mark") have embraced melancholy as the proper response to the passage from youth to old age.

Melancholy, though, is a quiet emotion, and speaks of loss in whispers and moans, hardly in keeping with the boisterous self-celebration we have grown accustomed to hearing from boomers.

Anyway, in typical fashion, the very definition of old age is clouded by the abiding interest boomers have not just in staying young forever but in favorably comparing themselves to their parents.

According to the Wrinkle Report, boomers feel that old age will commence around their 79th birthdays. Their parents, however, became geezers at 50.

*

At this point, one feels compelled to insert the obligatory lecturette about our misguided values, about age being a function of attitude, about how getting older equals getting better, yadda, yadda, yadda.

But let's be honest.

Age is a function of birth date.

Some of us are lucky enough to age gracefully--think Jessica Tandy, think Paul Newman.

A few people even say they have been able to welcome wrinkles and gray hair with joy. (We have a word for them. It starts with L and ends with I-A-R-S.) Most of us greet visible signs of aging with apprehension. In ourselves, anyway. In others, we react with glee.

We know we ought to worship talent, hard work and creativity. Instead, we worship youth, a transient commodity that cannot be harnessed, controlled or bought.

One of the great compliments of our time, in fact, is a meaningless one: "You don't look your age."

As Gloria Steinem so rationally replied when people tried to flatter her that she didn't look 50: This is what 50 looks like.

Seriously, though, at the time, she didn't look a day over 45.

* Robin Abcarian's column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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