A GERONTOLOGIST at the University of Florida, Stephen M. Golant, has coined the perfectly awful acronym Yeepies to describe what yuppies will turn into 20 or 30 years from now. ``As baby boomers age,'' Professor Golant predicts, ``a new age group will emerge that I'm calling Yeepies - youthful, energetic, elderly people involved in everything.'' This conforms, of course, to an old American tradition of asking the young to ``grow up'' and ``act their age'' while encouraging elders - indeed everybody from, say, 35 on - to behave ever more youthfully.
America's youth is its oldest tradition, Oscar Wilde observed - it's been going on for more than 300 years.
What the invention of the Yeepies suggests is that we have been pushing the boundaries of youth further and further until the slogan ``Life begins at 40'' now reads, ``Life begins at 60 - or later.''
The beau ideal seems to be that everybody should reach 30, and then by an act of will (``You're as young as you think you are'') and a lot of jogging and maybe a bit of cosmetic surgery, just stay there.
Profound confusion surrounds the cult of youth. One should wish devoutly for continued vitality. But to wish for perennial youth is to idealize the bud at the expense of the full bloom - to forbid the development of a second and third act.
Plato, for instance, thought that, while the first half of one's years are naturally devoted to action, to experience, the second half should be devoted to thought and reflection - to understanding the meaning of the experience.
The prescription for the Yeepies appears to be: Stay on the hop indefinitely - and in just those areas where youth is thought to flourish. Grandfathers are in disgrace who do not run in marathons. Grandmothers are expected to be cute and spunky in ``Hug me!'' T-shirts - invariably mistaken for their daughter's older sister. Today's exemplars are the septuagenarian Jack LaLanne, swimming from Catalina Island to the California mainland while towing a string of rowboats in his clenched teeth, and Hulda Stark, who, at 91, climbed to the top of Mt. Fuji last July. Marvelous feats both, but do they provide a complete agenda for a time of life once seen as an opportunity for developing one's vital interests outside of the body? There is a melancholy side to compelling seniors to compete at the games characteristic of juniors. The heart sinks at the proliferating manuals with titles like ``Sex After 60,'' making it an obligation that old Romeo and Juliet carry on, whether they want to or not.
In the name of the full life, we push our children into premature overachieving, and refuse to sign the release form for our elders. Are they not to be allowed to learn at last that winning isn't everything, and that, in fact, being is more important than doing? Must they still keep score in the most superficial youthful ways - how good-looking are you, how much money do you make, and so on?
Evidently. For Mr. Golant promises that the Yeepies ``will make up a really large market of consumer-oriented buyers.''
A chilling thought - to be condemned forever to Wordsworth's nightmare of ``getting and spending'' as if this were the true American Dream!
In casting our grandparents as juveniles, we come close to tripping over the embarrassing question raised by foreign observers, practically dating back to Alexis de Tocqueville: Have Americans ever developed an appropriate model of maturity? As children of the New World - lovers of the first chapter and the fresh start - are we destined to go through history as the ing'enue, indiscriminately enthusiastic, full of gee-whiz optimism, with a gaze of wide-open innocence? (A European observer of a New York upper-class drug scene remarked that Americans can even find a naive way to be decadent.)
Whatever became of ``Ripeness is all,'' Shakespeare's subsequent footnote to ``Romeo and Juliet''? Ripeness is a mellow word, a poised word, nicely lacking in the hurry-up panic of youth.
Whatever became of Samuel Johnson's late-career pronouncement, ``It is time to be in earnest''? - a classic statement of mature resolution.
There is a passion for life in declarations like these that goes beyond having your teeth capped or your face lifted, even if it means you will never, never qualify as a Yeepie, a name, in any case, that sounds like a teen-ager squealing at ``The Rocky Horror Picture Show.''
A Wednesday and Friday column