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The ultimate American quest is to eliminate death. All those health stories that cite "premature" deaths from heart disease or cancer never quite say compared to what. The silent assumption is that any death is premature and that immortality is within our reach.

If this seems absurd, consider what we've already done. Our culture is quietly erasing the idea of age. All ages are blurring with all other ages. Children shall become grown up as soon as possible. Young adults shall remain children as long as possible. Middle age barely exists, except as a graceful state reserved for those who were once considered old. No one is supposed to grow old until entering a nursing home. We simply retire, entitling us to do things that we did as children -- watch TV all day, take long trips, attend college or play softball.

The ageless society starts when children begin to act as consumers. American Demographics magazine reports that in 1998, children 6 to 11 spent $25 billion of their money and influenced another $187 billion. In five years, children's spending has doubled -- an increase the magazine attributed to "bigger allowances, more dual-income families and greater childhood freedom."

The rush toward adulthood accelerates as children pass third or fourth grade. Pop culture for the young and old is converging. "The Simpsons" indoctrinates the young into adult hypocrisy and cynicism. Indeed, "The Simpsons" epitomizes the triumph of ageless culture. The brilliant writing appeals (at different levels) to viewers of all ages. Along with cultural parity, the young often crave economic independence from parents. Among teens 16 to 19, almost half hold jobs.

The contradiction is that, having dashed into adulthood, younger Americans then cling to many childhood pleasures -- the avoidance of commitment, the worship of fun. In one study, only 63 percent of white men ages 25 to 31 held jobs consistently for a six-year period. Naturally, marriage is postponed. In 1950, the median age for first marriages was 23 for men and 20 for women; by 1990, those ages were 26 and 24. The self-absorbed and aimless characters in "Friends" may be stereotypes, but they're not completely removed from reality.

Historically, an ageless society is nothing new. Until this century, children worked in homes, fields or factories almost as soon as they could. In 1820, 55 percent of the cotton mill workers in Rhode Island were children. In a new book ("The Rise and Fall of the American Teen-ager"), Thomas Hine says "teen-ager" is a relatively new life stage. Through the 1920s, Hine says, most teens got jobs. A high school diploma marked someone as middle class, while dropping out "in the first or second year indicated membership in the working class."

The Great Depression put teens out of work and made their working undesirable (scarce jobs should go to adults). Increasingly, they stayed in school. "Once a large majority started going to high school, all of them, regardless of their economic or social status, began to be seen as members of a single group," writes Hine in American Heritage magazine. The term "teen-ager" wasn't used in print until 1941, he says. Retirement is also a modern creation. Until the 1930s, most men worked until their bodies gave way.

If past agelessness reflected poverty, today's reflects prosperity.

Every social revolution has its holdouts. Writing recently in the New York Times, Melvin Maddocks (described as a retired 70-something newspaper columnist) dismissed "the so-called new friskiness" among the old as a fantasy of baby boomers intended to dispel their own "terror of ending up, heaven forbid, like their parents." Some young people may also have missed the message. Though pop culture is drenched in sex, teens are actually having less sex.

Still, agelessness seems unstoppable, because it embodies that modern American ideal -- self-fulfillment. Expressed differently, we all ought to do anything we want whenever we want.

Washington Post Writers Group

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