The New Ideal: Forever 35-ish

June 13, 2004 | By Mimi Avins

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 résumé 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

For 101 years, Redbook has identified itself as the young married girl’s guide to life. But if its editor is typical of the magazine’s 2.35 million readers, it might more accurately be described as the magazine for mothers of young children. Ellen Kunes is the 45-year-old mother of twin 6-year-old boys.

“What we’re seeing overall is that there isn’t always a set time to do things in our lives, as there might have been years ago,” Kunes says. “I may have more in common with a 29-year-old who has young children than with a 45-year-old woman with kids in college. A woman like me may be interested in the latest stroller, and Botox. I’m more interested in things that are supposed to appeal to the young, married mom than to the 40-something woman who’s thinking about which menopause drug to take. In magazine-speak, my psychographic is more important than my demographic. That means we put aside a person’s basic demographic—age, income, education, all those things that used to define them. We want to know: What’s their headspace? Where are they in their life? What are the things they care the most about?”

Targeting specific age groups hasn’t gone away. Just this spring, the Coca-Cola company developed a commercial to run during the NCAA basketball tournament that was “youth- and male-oriented,” according to a spokesman. It scored higher among teenagers than any ad Coke has run in the last 10 years. But when it aired during a golf tournament, older consumers—including the company’s 77-year-old former president—complained about its jock humor.

Although consumers of the same age often share preferences, sometimes the significant variable is not a birth date but a person’s receptivity to new ideas and products. “Women are early adapters for stuff that will make their lives work,” Kunes says. Honda designed the boxy Element SUV for 22-year-old single males with a taste for surfing and snowboarding. Imagine the company’s surprise when the car, which looks like the love child of a Mini Cooper and a Hummer H2, was a hit—with soccer moms.

“The old idea of brand loyalty is outmoded,” says Maddy Dychtwald, a 52-year-old marketing consultant and author of “Cycles: How We Will Live, Work and Buy.” “Age segmentation was paint-by-numbers for marketers. You knew exactly what someone was up to based on how old they were.”

In 1986, Dychtwald and her husband, Ken, founded Age Wave, a Bay Area firm that analyzes and forecasts trends, particularly among baby boomers. She admits to having a positive view of growing older and a belief in an ageless consumer. “Studies have shown that older people are as likely to try new things as younger shoppers. Boomers are the No. 1 users of the Internet, for example,” she says. “Cyclic monogamy is a bonanza for people who sell travel, weddings, things for the home. My mother remarried at 60, after my father died, and she and her new husband decided to chuck everything and start over. They bought a new house, all new furniture. Before their wedding, they registered for gifts. Obviously, any business stuck with the idea that only young married couples buy honeymoon packages and new dishes doesn’t get it. An empty-nester can be 40, 60 or 80. The term represents not an age as much as an experiential and economic life stage when there’s a lot of discretionary income available.”

The ‘35’ vibe

The legendary pitcher Satchel Paige was born on July 7, 1906, he thought, but the year could have been 1904. “My birth certificate was in our Bible,” he said, “and the goat ate the Bible. That goat lived to be 27.” The fastball king was still playing in the major leagues at 59. He was 75 when he died, or maybe 77. “Age is a question of mind over matter,” he said. “If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.”

Ah, but we do mind. We mind so much that we’d rather medicate than endure baldness, wrinkles or the blues. We’ve fought the ravages and annoyances of age so successfully—with “lifestyle drugs,” exercise regimes, good nutrition, cosmetic dermatology and plastic surgery—that if Paige asked today, as he sometimes did, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was?,” the answer many Americans might give would be “35.”

“Everyone’s 35,” Michael Kors says. The fashion designer is 44, but with his close-cropped blond hair and casual uniform of T-shirt, blazer and plain-front khaki pants, he looks to be in his late 30s. Kors visits stores around the country, and he’s seen as many females in states of undress as a towel attendant in a ladies’ locker room. So when he swears that you can barely distinguish a well-tended woman in her 50s from her husband’s much younger mistress, he knows whereof he speaks.

“The visual of someone in their 30s resonates for all age groups, so that’s what we use in advertising,” says Kors, who designs for men too. The model might actually be 16 or 24, but he or she projects a “35” vibe. “Old enough to have arrived, old enough to be discerning, but young enough to still have fun,” he says. Kors creates sleek, body-conscious clothes for a mythical 35-year-old. His ideal, idealized woman could be Michelle Pfeiffer (she’s 46), or Cate Blanchett (35), Scarlett Johansson (19), Jessica Capshaw (27) or Rene Russo (who’s really 50).

“It started to happen in the ‘90s, first with the affluent shopper,” he explains. “The ultimate status symbol was not to cover yourself with jewels and look like a matron. Suddenly, it became more to be able to wear a tank top well into your 40s and 50s. Now it’s gotten so extreme that yoga clothes are the badge of honor more than an evening gown. In affluent suburbs, from Brentwood to Greenwich, women stay in their yoga clothes longer than they need to because that shows they have the time and the energy to spend on maintaining a youthful look. The balance has also been thrown off by younger people dressing in a more sophisticated way.”

Singletons, young marrieds, empty-nesters, divorcees “of a certain age” and grandparents used to be discrete groups, each with its own style. Today, children raised by “cool” parents don’t mind dressing like them and aren’t horrified if their elders appropriate styles probably meant for them. “It used to be that neither men nor women wanted to dress like their parents,” Kors says. “Now, your father and mother are dressing like you. And every woman I know who has a teenage daughter complains about her daughter borrowing her clothes and wearing her shoes.”

To write the script for the recent comedy “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen,” Gail Parent, who is in her early 60s, had to think and speak like a 15-year-old. Colloquialisms aside, a teenager and a mature woman have different concerns. “When you’re in high school, what’s really important is that other people like you and accept you,” Parent says. “As you get older, you learn that not everyone is going to like you, and it’s OK. But that teenage drama queen is in me. What changes is the amount of physical energy.”

Parent has mind-leaped into other ages before: In the ‘80s, she was on the writing staff of “The Golden Girls.” She visited the “Confessions” set in Toronto on the first day of production, wearing a khaki-green jacket she’d bought at French Connection. Lindsay Lohan, the film’s 17-year-old star, was dressed in a very similar jacket. “It was like I showed up in wardrobe that wasn’t that different from what the hippest kid in high school was wearing,” Parent says. “I have six grandchildren! I was a little embarrassed, but only for a minute. I noticed it, but Lindsay didn’t.”

No more kids’ tables

The boomers grew up as contrarian as they were numerous. Anything their parents ate, drank, read, drove or danced to, they rejected. One of the things they wanted most to revolutionize was parenting. They saw their elders as critical, so they vowed to be positive and supportive with their offspring. Their parents excluded them from adult activities, so they welcomed youngsters at their parties, viewed them as suitable restaurant companions and considered them worldly enough to contribute to the most sophisticated conversations. Boomer parents demolished the kids’ table.

“My husband and I came from parents who were very uncomfortable with children, and that fueled our desire to be inclusive with our kids,” Geffner says. “At the beginning of our parenting lives, we were working so hard that we wanted to be with our kids as much as we could. They went everywhere we went, and they became very comfortable with adult company. We love hanging out with our sons’ friends. We try, in as artful a way as we can, to have them be part of our lives.” The couple’s oldest son plays keyboard in an amateur rock group that Guzzardi formed with other men his age. “The generations blend that way,” Geffner says.

When Parent was growing up, she says, “My parents would go to a New Year’s Eve party and bring home the hats and horns to us kids.” But when she threw a party this spring to celebrate the reissue of her bestselling 1972 novel, “Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living In New York,” the crowd of 50 included a range of ages. “About six years ago, I became friends with a woman who works at a TV station. Two weeks later, I met her daughter and became friends with her, completely separately,” Parent says. “The mother is about 60, her daughter is about 30. They were both at the party, and so was a friend who’s 84, who always looks beautiful in clothes I could wear. I was so happy that night. I looked around the room and everybody melded well.”

But aren’t many of the similarities between generations only superficial? Even if everyone could succeed in looking eternally 35 (while only the portraits in their closets aged), pop cultural references would expose them as surely as gray roots grow in. Or maybe not. Look around at an OutKast concert. The cultural gap has narrowed, says J. Walker Smith, the 48-year-old president of Yankelovich Partners, a marketing consultancy. “People of different ages are increasingly likely to be sharing more of the same tastes,” he says. “There’s more cultural crossover among age groups, but also among racial and ethnic groups as well. The outright cultural rejection by the younger generation is not as pronounced as it was when baby boomers were the same age.”

When it comes to sharing experiences with their children, parents are putting their money behind their philosophy. Inclusive parents have given children the power to influence family purchases, Smith says. “Our research has shown that large percentages of parents say they get advice from their kids about the vacations they take and the cars and technology they buy. Parents bring the kids to the car dealership and ask them what color they’d like, which accessories. When my dad bought a new car, we didn’t have a say. He’d drive it into the driveway and say, ‘Get in or walk.’ ”

Millennials rising

When Dychtwald writes that “Age no longer defines our limits, who we are, or the choices we can make,” she is in cheerleader mode, encouraging marketers to follow the money. Yet she is aware of the dark side: Not everyone lives long and dies fast, and half of all people over 85 have some form of dementia. “The health issues are the big issues,” she says. “Ultimately, genetics will define who we are.”

As long as death and fertility remain immutable, we aren’t quite one big happy jeans-wearing, Viagra-popping club. One hundred years ago, the average American lived to age 47 and the median age was 17. Life expectancy is now 77 and the median age is 36. But there has been little if any change in the last century in the onset of menopause. Despite some promising studies of mice that continue to produce healthy eggs throughout their lives, scientists admit that the biological clock probably won’t be beaten for 20 or 30 years.

Phoebe Fine is 34-year-old novelist Lucinda Rosenfeld’s 30-year-old alter ego. In “Why She Went Home,” she moves back in with her parents in New Jersey. “The joke of the book is that Phoebe moves back to the suburbs at 30, which is kind of a perversion of the life cycle,” Rosenfeld says. “And the punch line comes when her mother wants to move into the city, to a fabulous loft in Tribeca. The sense of there being milestones you should reach at a certain age is looser than it used to be, but I’m afraid the clichés of being in your 30s are true. The pressures to marry and mate are real. I have a lot of friends who say if it weren’t for the biological clock, they’d happily wait another 10 years to have children.”

At the end of the day, maybe the irrelevancy of age is a flattering boomer fable. No one is better served by a rosy picture of aging, a take on the future ripe with possibilities, than the boomers, the largest, loudest, most rebellious and optimistic population bulge 20th century America produced.

“No phase of life means anything until boomers experience it and tell everyone else about it,” says Neil Howe. An economist and historian, Howe has written four books analyzing America’s generations, including “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation,” with William Strauss, his partner in Life Course Associates, a research and consulting company in Virginia that advises elected officials on public policy. Howe and Strauss divide the population into the “G.I. Generation” (born from 1901 to 1924), the “Silent Generation” (1925-42), the “Boom Generation” (1943-60), “Generation X” (1961-81) and the “Millennial Generation” (born in and after 1982). “A generation is defined by its relation to important events,” Howe says. “Generations look at their coming-of-age years as a distinct time in history.”

With characteristic bite, an episode of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” illustrated how generations view history and culture from different perspectives. A man in his early 30s is invited to dinner at Larry David’s home. David doesn’t know much about the guy, except that a mutual friend told him, “he’s a survivor.” So David invites a friend of his father’s, a Holocaust survivor, thinking they will have much in common. Unfortunately, they men have no well of shared experience. The young man was a competitor on the reality TV show “Survivor.”

At times, generalizations about generations sound as plausible as the astrological claims that all Virgos are orderly and Pisces artistic. Smith, of Yankelovich Partners, says, “When we describe boomers for our clients, the word we use is ‘youthfulness.’ They have always approached things with a fresh, active perspective, always wanted to innovate and break the rules. Boomers were defined by the positive view of the future that was typical of Americans in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Notwithstanding the trauma of Vietnam and the struggle for civil rights, the dominant view was: The future will be great and we’re all going to live like the Jetsons. We might have to fix a few problems along the way, but the world will be a better place when we get there.”

Of course, a generation determined not to experience the burdened enterprise of adulthood as their parents had would adapt it to their liking. “Boomers have cycled in and out of different experiences, and they always will,” Howe says. “They came of age at a time characterized by a mood of free choice, free agency and more options.”

In her 1976 international bestseller, “Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life,” Gail Sheehy identified four stages of adulthood, using age as a proxy for experience. But that construct was less and less defendable as the millennium approached. Case in point: Sheehy deviated from the paradigm she popularized. She remarried at 49, then adopted a second daughter at 50, a Cambodian orphan who had been her foster child. In 1995 “New Passages” was published. Sheehy’s revised message was that we can customize our adulthood and start over in midlife, as if life were a golf game with unlimited mulligans.

Today, it is difficult to argue with 78 million baby boomers, who make up one-third of the American population. Sixty is the new 30 if they say it is. At least until those in the Millennial Generation, now entering their 20s, get into positions of power. “The Millennials are more risk-averse,” Howe says. “They’re battling against the cyclical model of the boomers. They don’t think it works.”