Five, four, three, two, one . . . Happy 2000! As the horns blow and the confetti comes streaming down, you reach over to kiss . . .

Nobody.

How depressing is that? Biggest night of the year, biggest night of the century, and you don't have a date. No midnight kiss. No life. Jeeez.

Turns out that's a baby boomer freakout. The twenty-somethings are too cool to panic, and believe they have all the New Year's Eves in the world to find True Love. It's the forty-somethings who know they don't.

"I have never seen such anxiety," says Tom Curtis, owner of the Yacht Club, a Bethesda bar for over-40 singles. "For some reason, both sexes have made this out to be some kind of Armageddon of dating. This is a night to remember, this is Titanic."

Well, it is a night to remember, and the traditional pressure for singles to be with someone fabulous is off the charts.

"They know they don't have to have a date," Curtis says. "They're independent and liberated. People are saying to me, 'I know I can go out with my friends, but shouldn't I be doing something more meaningful? Why don't I have somebody special?' "

Yes, folks, it's come to this: life as an "Ally McBeal" episode. All we're missing is the dancing baby. But we digress.

The point is: The older the single, the more likely that all of Life's Choices come home to roost on New Year's Eve. By now every self-help expert, every psychobabbling talking head has appeared on some cable show explaining the desire to be coupled up on New Year's Eve, even though some of the most horrifying dating stories have come from this cold winter night. It is the eternal triumph of hope over experience--which is not a bad thing when it comes to matters of the heart.

"A romantic date? No, I'm going out with friends," says Trish Reardon, 36, a benefits manager for E-Loan in San Francisco. "It would be nice to have a date, of course."

"But not mandatory," chimes in Greg Bourscheid.

Bourscheid, 36, owner of a home inspection company in Centreville, is an old high school pal of Reardon's. The two were reminiscing this week about where they thought, way back when, they'd be on the millennial New Year's Eve: Both expected to be married with families. Neither has married nor even has a date for Friday night. "But I'm okay with it," says Bourscheid, who will celebrate "with my newly divorced" old friends.

The pressure to be linked with Mr. or Ms. Right is greatest on New Year's Eve, when the right date is a symbol of . . . well, hope. As early as this fall, the Washington office of Great Expectations, a nationwide video dating service, was flooded with calls by folks lining up prospects for the big occasion.

"October and November were both very good months here," says office director Michael Miess. New members told him, "Great. Now maybe I can meet someone for New Year's Eve." And Miess has received about 50 calls over the past two days. "I think they realize it's too late to get a New Year's Eve date, but they're bound and determined to have one next year."

The phones have also been busy at Together, a national dating service in Maryland, which is hearing from singles in their thirties and forties who have decided to take the proactive approach to their love lives. "I got a call this morning saying, 'I want a date for New Year's,' " says Lisa, an assistant manager. "Now that Christmas is over, people have realized that they don't want to be alone for another holiday."

Not everyone, of course, is angst-ridden. A group of young guys, all twenty-somethings drinking together at Clyde's in Vienna, decided that being solo is precisely what they want for this big night.

"I like to mingle around," says Aaron Romney, a 22-year-old student at James Madison University in Harrisonburg. "I'm sure there'll be a lot of women without dates."

"I've known what I was doing since August," says classmate Brandon Conner, who will attend a Phish concert in South Florida. "I'm planning on randomly hooking up."

Ditto for Ryan Ostlund, 22, a manager at a Washington-area Foot Locker who has no date and no worry. "Not one bit," he explains. "If you take one date, you ruin your chances with anybody else. You play the field. I look at it as the more, the merrier."

"It would bother me if I had a date," says John Twohey, 23. "It's the new millennium. It would be less fun with a girlfriend."

Or with a boyfriend. Deborah, a 40-year-old in real estate sales in Northern Virginia, has a date, but hasn't decided whether she'll keep it. "I like to go spur-of-the-moment," she says. "It depends on my mood. If I'm in a hot, passionate, sexual mood--then I'll go."

And if she's not? "If I blow him off at the last minute, he'll improvise."

Many singles are avoiding the whole issue by curling up at home, surrounding themselves with trusted friends--or working.

"I'm relieved I'm working, because I don't have the anxiety of figuring out what I'm going to do and who I'm going to be with," says Jackie Williams, who will spend the night with co-workers at Studebaker's, a '50s-themed restaurant in Vienna.

It is far better to go out with friends--or by yourself--than to accept just any invitation, says Curtis. "An absolute no-no is going out with someone for the sake of having a walker with you, and then thinking you have to hide in the ladies' room at midnight because old beetle-breath is a slobberer."

Curtis believes New Year's Eve is a better night to go out than any other night because the singles out celebrating are confident about themselves. His advice: Go out alone to that party instead of staying home. You never know who else will be without a date.

"Look, it's like a quarterback being nervous before the Super Bowl," he explains. "After the first five minutes, it's going to be like any other night. You're going to start looking around for eligible receivers."

And Miess, who works at a dating service, didn't have a date until Monday.

"I actually didn't have any plans and somebody called me--and I was very glad she did," he says. "Believe it not, there are a lot of people who don't have plans. So if you don't, call somebody."

And a happy midnight kiss to all.