They are the Young Fogies, and Washington is full of them nowadays.

You see them all over downtown, the Hill, the agencies, the law firms -- baby fat in horn-rim glasses, white bread in black wingtip shoes, 24-year-old staff assistants whose conversations resonate with words like "escrow" and "breakfront," 29-year-old lawyers doing the Burberry Shuffle down K Street, their raincoats belted right under their armpits as they move along with a kind of anxious bustle, as if their snap-front boxer shorts were riding up.

"The ones with the suspenders and the Mont Blanc pens?" asks Dan Buck, who is administrative assistant to Rep. Pat Schroeder. "The ones who never had a real job in life, for example delivering pizzas? They're the ones down at the White House who have never been anywhere or done anything, who think they're in charge."

"I think you're talking about the interns, or the Schedule C's from the '88 Bush campaign," says Chase Untermeyer, director of presidential personnel at the White House. "You'll find a lot of them over at Commerce."

You see them at night in restaurants, both sexes checking their watches when the waiter asks if they want coffee. You see them at deadline in newsrooms, frowning with bewilderment at jokes about the latest massacre or bus plunge story. You see them eating yogurt lunches in law firms and looking forward to careers in trusts and estates -- "they're most comfortable working with the dead," says James M. Spears, general counsel at the Federal Trade Commission.

What is the meaning of all this?

There is very little meaning.

You won't see a "Young Fogies" cover on Time magazine, which has already come up with the name "twentysomethings" for the generation to which the Young Fogies are a footnote, a codicil. They are not trend-setters, culture heroes, role models, neo-liberals, proto-fascists, preppies or yuppies -- a yuppie, for instance, knows within five seconds where you bought your shoes, while a Young Fogy is more apt to know what you got on your SATs. They are just a collection of impressions you get from passing enough of them on the sidewalk, an eddy in the slow-moving stream of consciousness that is life in Washington.

There's nothing new about them. (The name was used almost a decade ago to describe the editors at the Spectator in London.) They've always been around, setting their sights on joining the White House press corps or showing up to work in campaign headquarters, particularly Republican ones -- though they are not to be confused with what used to be known at the National Review as "the doddering young men of the hard right."

It's just that there seem to be so many of them around right now. Or is it that there are so few young people having any fun?

In any case, we should be grateful. The Young Fogies may be the younger generation we need. In the Washington of Reagan's irredeemable national debt, of Congress's stagnation, of media that fewer and fewer people pay attention to, they are not so much architects of the future as its caretakers, sort of the cruise control for the aging four-door sedan of state.

We know so little about them, and that's just the way they want it. They discovered long ago that invisibility is the key to success, that quiet resentment can be a way of life.

But you know whom we're talking about here. You've probably been noticing them for a while now, in your office, at the Kennedy Center, in upscale furniture stores. There's a primness, an odd way of being wary and presumptuous at the same time. They were the children who identified with the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, who asked for combination-lock briefcases for graduation presents, who decided to devote their lives to the public good after seeing Margaret Tutwiler hold a State Department press conference on TV.

The women are proud of having a certain mousiness. They borrow cocktail dresses and Kenneth J. Lane door-knocker earrings from their mothers. They'll buy garden party hats, but they're afraid to wear them, though sometimes you'll see them on house tours, carrying them at their sides. The men get their shirts boxed at the cleaners instead of putting them on hangers. They cultivate a fussy domesticity, and may own a pair of gardening kneepads from Brookstone.

They tend to be short, with uncertain handshakes. They have that odd quality of looking much older than you even when they're younger, sort of like your parents in their high school yearbook pictures. This observation would not trouble them. Young Fogies love hanging out with their parents, their grandparents, their parents-in-law and their friends' parents, with whom they go to brunches and restaurants -- their idea of a great restaurant is the kind their parents used to take them to, with popovers and a little waterfall out back. Among the Young Fogies, parents are a favorite subject of conversation, along with the foibles of cleaning women. They tell each other: "Your parents are such neat people."

Young Fogies need a lot of reassuring. They want to know they're doing things right.

"These people are so passive," says Tony White, a manager at Olsson's Books and Records at Dupont Circle. "They'll ask us if something is good even while they're listening to it."

They like things packaged, listed, tidy -- classic rock, prix fixe dinners, season symphony tickets, Pentagon press briefings, summit meetings.

"They're the reporters you see on campaign planes balancing their checkbooks," says Julia Reed, a writer and editor at Vogue.

They buy a lot of life insurance. They buy picture frames and then find pictures to fit -- botanical prints are popular, with the Latin inscriptions, Narcissus major flore multiplice. They buy extended warranties.

"Okay, we'll buy it," says the Fogy husband to the Fogy wife as they study a wingback chair. "But promise me -- we're not going to sit in it till we've Scotchgarded it."

They like antique hunting, which they call " 'tiquing." They would like to collect something but can never decide what, though they have collected huge quantities of umbrellas -- at home, in the car, the briefcase, the office, in case they ever lose one, which they never do. They read lots of memoirs and biographies, preferably of Winston Churchill, of whom they do imitations at their dinner parties. "We will nevah surrendah."

They like giving dinner parties so they can worry about the seating arrangements and use their silver. They like filling out expense accounts. They love taking standardized tests -- College Boards, bar exams, Graduate Record Exams, medical boards.

They shop by catalogue whenever possible -- the women buy bathing suits from Lands' End, for instance. They have a blackboard next to the kitchen phone, and they leave messages in color-coded chalk. They keep a Christmas card list. They take it with them when they go to Europe and use it for sending postcards that begin "Hi Guys" in their tiny handwriting.

Who better to usher America into the new world order, into "the end of history" we were talking about a year or two ago?

They take a custodial position toward all of reality. They are strong environmentalists -- they like the orderliness of the recycling ritual. They see soul mates in Al and Tipper Gore -- Mr. Green and Mrs. Clean. They read the New Yorker, and enjoy the memoirs of childhoods in other countries. They are apt to own their own videotapes of "The Big Chill" and "Brideshead Revisited" -- they feel nostalgic for other people's pasts, never having had childhoods of their own. They liked "Ghost," which told them they could be dead and still live in a good neighborhood. They went to the early show.

They watch a lot of television and say they feel guilty about it, though they don't really. They tried watching "Twin Peaks," but the next day they wandered around the office asking people to explain it to them. They don't understand "The Simpsons" either. They think Bart is "going nowhere fast."

They say they like almost anything on public television -- "Mystery," "Masterpiece Theatre," the Fred Astaire movies. Their secret vice, the thing they stay up past 10 o'clock for, is the fund-raisers. The people doing the talking on screen, touting the umbrellas and tote bags, are cult figures to the Young Fogies, who hope someday to have their friends see them on the fund-raiser phone bank, taking viewers' calls.

They like almost anything on National Public Radio, with the exception of "Car Talk" -- they disapprove of the way the Tappet Brothers laugh at their own jokes, and, deep down, they don't really like cars.

They have a hard time with parallel parking, for one thing, and they will never learn how to drive standard shift. They drive like people who didn't learn how until they were 23, which they often didn't, they were so busy with SAT prep courses, internships, fellowships and networking. They may drive Volvos or Toyotas, but their favorite car is the old Buick Electra their grandparents gave them after the move to Florida. If it gets dented, the Young Fogies say, "Grampa would be heartbroken."

They buy houses in Old Town Alexandria, Falls Church, Cleveland Park, Chevy Chase. They spend a lot of time decorating the guest bedroom. They like working fireplaces, except they have a hard time making them work. This causes arguments that have a sudden, inexplicable and ferocious quality, sort of like their sex lives.

"Did you open the flue?"

"Yes, I opened the goddam flue, do you think I'm a complete idiot?"

"I was just ..."

"Do you? Do you? I want an answer."

It is not true that they are sexless. Eros entered their lives in college, usually -- the men recognized it as a sort of required course, and the women may have had flings with a professor or two. Now passion gets renewed with the arrival of the Victoria's Secret catalogue or a new canopy bed. They plan to have children -- they picture having sons who look like miniature versions of George Will.

They can be wicked too. They take terrific relish in cutting their friends to pieces after they go home -- one of the reasons they get married is to have someone to gossip with.

They don't exercise with much gusto. Sometimes a Young Fogy couple goes out and buys a badminton set. They play in the back yard, all by themselves.

Both their parents and their grandparents are secretly disappointed in them, of course. "I just wish they were having more fun," say the parents. "Do you think it's normal for people that age to go to Bermuda on vacation?"

The Young Fogies may be anxious and resentful, but they are not disappointed. They are resigned to the fact that their tickets are punched but their train is rusted to the rails. They don't expect much, which is why they work so hard to take care of what they've got. They aren't leaving anytime soon. If we threw them out, where would they go? Wilmington? Hartford? They're not quite living fossils, not quite an endangered species, but Washington is their habitat.