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The new ideal: forever 35-ish

Launch a career in midlife. Dress like your parents. Botox the years away. Society and the market are suggesting that age is not really destiny.

June 13, 2004|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

In 1995, Isabel Geffner and her husband, Peter Guzzardi, were entrenched in New York's media elite. She'd been a publishing executive for 20 years; he was an editor of novels and nonfiction whose list of authors included Martin Amis, Stephen Hawking and Deepak Chopra. They lived in a rambling, high-ceilinged, rent-stabilized apartment on the Upper East Side with their two preteen sons. From Monday to Thursday, the boys sat down to dinner with the woman who looked after them while their parents were at work. The family spent time together only on weekends, which was frustrating, because Geffner and Guzzardi preferred the company of their children to that of most adults.

So they decided to make a change that would improve the quality of all their lives. Guzzardi accepted a job as editorial director of Duke University Press, they sublet their apartment, sold their weekend house on Shelter Island and moved to Chapel Hill, N.C. Geffner planned to take at least a year off, picturing how "mother and housewife" would look on her resume when she was ready to go back to work. A wiry woman with a wild mass of curly black hair and an energy level that might mistakenly be attributed to an excess of caffeine, she enrolled in the master's program in social work at the University of North Carolina. She was 45.

"I felt like I could reinvent myself," she says. "I didn't have to be one thing as an adult. I had been a book-publishing person, and that was great, but now I was going to do something different. I loved being in school. The sense of being engaged and alive was like a fountain of youth. I didn't worry about getting hired at my age when I got my degree -- I figured if I'm good at what I do and I care about it passionately, I'll get a job. If I choose to go back to grad school again at 65, I'll have a similar attitude then."

As recently as 50 years ago, the path of adulthood was linear: After getting an education, most people expected to work, marry, have children, then retire and die. But as feminism, technology and medical advances transformed, well, everything, from average life spans to professional expectations, every age group encountered a greater range of options. Marriage and children could be postponed, maybe forever. Careers and mates could be tried and abandoned. Education, dating, endurance sports, sexy clothes and rock 'n' roll weren't just for the young. And what was young, anyway? A 2001 Harris Poll asked baby boomers their definition of old. They considered their parents old at 51. They didn't think they would be old till they reached 79.

Today, you are how you look, how you feel and what you do. Now that Nikes and blue jeans and better living through chemistry help people of all ages pass for 35 or thereabouts, the social, professional and cultural barriers between age groups are blurring, even vanishing. Cross-generational friendships flourish. Culture is as much about recycling old styles as inventing new ones. (Where would Ima Robot or Marc Jacobs be were that not the case?) Innovative marketers have shifted their attention from demographics to "psychographics." By our paper products we shall be defined: If you aren't wearing diapers or Depends, you're part of the mass of ageless adults in the middle.

No one told Geffner and Guzzardi that the old linear model most adults once followed was being replaced by an elliptical one. Those in the vanguard of social trends don't follow blueprints, they live their lives. So when Geffner discovered at 47 that she was pregnant, the couple moved through shock, nervousness and scientific curiosity to what she describes as a joyous kind of Zen acceptance. They also took some good-natured ribbing. When their daughter was born, a friend joked that he knew other 53-year-old fathers of babies, but none with infants born to their first wives.

Contemplating the birth of another child, Geffner didn't feel any different than she had when her first two were born, 17 and 18 years ago. "I still think of myself as being young, and I'd feel that way even if I didn't have a 22-month-old baby," she says. "When I realize I'm 50, I can't believe it. I don't feel what I imagined 50 would feel like, whatever that is. I remember my mother was old at 50. I'm not old, in any way, shape or form. I feel like I'm 27. I still dress the way I did when I was in my 20s. I have gray in my hair and I color it, but it looks pretty much the same as it always has. I exercise and eat right, and my body's still in good shape."

Geffner is now the executive director of a nonprofit organization that coordinates the work of child service agencies. But stay tuned. "When I went back to school," she says, "I fell in love with learning in a way that I hadn't when I went to college the first time. I came home one day and said to my husband, 'Maybe I'll get a master's in biochemistry and art history.' "

The new demography

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