WHEN a friend turned 50 a few months ago, the event passed largely unnoticed: no cake, no party, no fanfare - just a few cards from relatives and a small gift from his wife and children. But a few weeks later he received an unexpected reminder of his new status as a member of the ``fiftysomething'' generation - an invitation to join the American Association of Retired Persons.
As a member, the organization explained, he would join millions of 50-and-over members in getting ``representation in Washington, D.C., that works to protect the rights and interests of mature people on Social Security, taxes, and health care.'' He would also be eligible for discounts on lodging and airfare.
The mailing prompted the recipient to wonder: How did AARP know his age? It also brought predictable jokes from his teenage children about rocking chairs and retirement. But the promise of travel discounts and the low cost of membership - only $35 for 10 years - proved to be effective lures. He sent off a check.
Last week his first issue of Modern Maturity arrived, inspiring a fresh round of jokes from his children. Somehow the ads for Florida retirement communities and battery-powered scooters seemed geared for readers considerably older than he, but, well, never mind. The glossy photos and upbeat articles were not without interest.
Still, this barely-50 friend regards his youthful eligibility for membership in AARP as evidence of the contradictory signals about age that pervade American society. On the one hand, there is a cheerleading attitude that says: Youth is a state of mind, and you're only as old as you think. On the other hand, there is a growing implication - apparent in advertisers' efforts to capture a lucrative ``mature market'' - that at 50 you've crossed the line between the country of the young and the country of the old.
Make that the country of the mature. Because if there's anything a fiftyish consumer doesn't like, it's a reminder of age. Some publishers think the demise of magazines like 50 Plus and Grandparents stems in part from readers' dislike of the age-related titles. Even Lear's, a magazine originally targeted to women over 40 and now aimed at women over 35, dropped its subtitle, ``For the woman who wasn't born yesterday.''
For workers who weren't born yesterday, other contradictory signals abound. Mandatory retirement at 65 or 70 is now illegal for most employees, making it possible - in theory at least - for a worker to stay on the job indefinitely. But in practice, subtle new forms of mandatory retirement have sprung up, disguised as ``golden handshakes'' and sweetened pensions. Many employees find it impossible to continue working even until 62, which has become the new retirement age of choice for many Americans.
And then there are the changing family structures that blur traditional definitions of age. In professional circles, it has become chic for couples to begin a family in their 40s, which makes them eligible for AARP membership about the same time they attend their first PTA meeting. In other neighborhoods, grandmothers on Social Security are finding themselves with custody of young grandchildren who have been abandoned by drug-addicted parents, thus giving added meaning to the phrase ``modern maturity.''
Who is old? When is middle age? Even Americans themselves cannot agree. In a survey reported in my friend's first issue of Modern Maturity, four-fifths of respondents between 46 and 55 defined themselves as middle-aged. But so did nearly a third of those over 76 and 11 percent of those between 18 and 35!
There is profound confusion here - and too much fear. Public discussion zigzags between grim talk about the ``graying of America'' and defiant affirmation of the ``fountain of aging'' - a term that gives away a continuing preoccupation with the ``fountain of youth.'' Age is a state of mind - a complicated and subtle set of beliefs. But the resolution lies neither in evasive euphemisms, masking apprehension, nor in dreams of immortality in the flesh. If this familiar polarizing can be avoided, perhaps an ideal of maturity - true maturity - can be initiated.
``America's youth is its oldest tradition,'' Oscar Wilde quipped. ``It has gone on for over 300 years.'' Now it may be time to establish a new tradition of gracefully growing up.