Are definitions of age becoming irrelevant?

Adventure-loving travelers who have passed the big 4-0 might wish they could borrow a trick from Jack Benny and stay 39 forever. That's the cutoff age a British tour company, Exodus, has just imposed on six of its African adventure holidays. No graybeards over 40 allowed, no matter how young at heart they might be.

It's not that the midlifers can't keep up physically with the twentysomethings. They can. Their problem, supposedly, is that they can't re-

late socially. As an Exodus spokesman explained to reporters, they're in "different phases" of their lives and just "don't fit in" with the company's typical 28-year-old clients. That extra life experience appears to be a liability rather than an asset.

What a blow to would-be customers who have been assiduously pumping and perspiring their way to toned muscles at the gym and perhaps nipping and tucking their way to youthful looks at the plastic surgeon's office. Their energetic outlook is even reflected in a new phrase, "middle youth," coined to describe a generation that not so many years ago was considered middle-aged.

Exodus freely admits that its policy, while not illegal, is "ageist." The company's decision signals just how confusing definitions of age and expectations of age-appropriate activities have become.

On the one hand, "old" keeps getting redefined downward, applying to ever-younger ages. Membership in the American Association of Retired Persons begins at 50. Time magazine offers "senior citizen" rates to those who are only 55. And in recent years employers casting a cold eye on the bottom line have eagerly offered early retirement even to workers in their 40s. The golden shove in mid-career.

At the same time, "young" is stretching upward on the age scale. A few current bestsellers offer partial evidence. "Real Age: Are You As Young As You Can Be?" by gerontologist Michael Roizen offers tips for reducing one's biological age by up to 20 years. "Live Now, Age Later," by Isadore Rosenfeld, also suggests ways to slow down the clock.

The new status involves not just keeping up with the Joneses economically but also keeping up with one's offspring physically. In the process, chronological age is becoming increasingly irrelevant. A major redefinition of both youth and maturity is under way, featuring more precocious children and more youthful adults.

At one end of the age spectrum, middle-school whiz kids are serving as paid computer consultants to businesses. At the other end, sixtysomethings are competing in triathlons. No wonder it's not uncommon to hear sprightly octogenarians in retirement communities utter the complaint, "There are too many old people here."

It was a young-looking Gloria Steinem who first redefined age by delivering the now-classic line, "This is what 40 looks like." A decade later she said, "This is what 50 looks like." Then it was 60. Stay tuned for 70.

Last month a British commentator took an even more radical step by proclaiming that "30 is the new 50."

Age bias promises to be a major issue in coming decades. Who is young? What is old? The questions are certain to prompt lawsuits in many quarters. Just last month Johnson and Higgins Inc., an insurance brokerage firm, agreed to pay $28 million to settle a suit charging it with age discrimination for requiring board members to retire at 62.

In another arena, as reproductive technology makes possible later maternity, who will decide who is too old to bear children? And will "middle-youth" adventurers denied a place on treks to Africa eventually sue for their right to travel with 25-year-olds?

The parental dictum, "Act your age," can only grow more confusing. Which age? Chronological? Physical? Emotional? If Jack Benny were alive at the millennium, even he might want to downsize his age from 39 to 29.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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