MY HUSBAND turns wearily to me to confess that sometimes he doesn't want to be a lawyer anymore, that he despises the careless affluence of Washington, that he wishes he could figure out what to do.
I nod vacantly, half wanting to follow him to a new life on faraway bleached sands, half terrified to put a stop to the concessions to adulthood that have brought us a house complete with fireplace and two stylish automobiles. My restless husband has turned 30.
This generation entering its fourth decade is not notable for claiming as its own any particular milestone event or philosophy. We are loosely labeled part of the Baby Boom Generation, but in reality we have often felt little in common with older brothers and sisters who sat down in college buildings and stood up to the Pentagon, or younger siblings who wear alligator shirts and talk fervently about the value of ROTC.
We entered high school to the tune of "Hell no, we won't go," but were too young to feel fully the immediacy of Vietnam. In social studies classes only the most precocious discussed the meaning of the demonstrations at Morningside Heights, our wire-rim glasses resting owlishly on innocent sweet-16 faces.
We had no clear idols. We danced to Bob Dylan and the Monkees alike, and thought we were daring when we puffed cigarettes on Friday nights. Girls rumored to Have Done It were dismissed as tramps. One Christmas it seemed like half my class checked into hospitals to have noses and chins fixed, while older brothers and sisters proclaimed their rights not to be spindled, mutilated or folded.
And now in confusion we are turning 30, wondering what happened to our unpublicized growing-up years -- once stretched so lazily before us -- and what we actually acquired in our teens and twenties that can be transported as carry-on baggage into middle age.
Every rite of passage for us was marked by crowds and affluence and ruthless competition. When I was 7, I was bused to school: not as an experiment in civil rights enforcement, but because the neighborhood school was simply too full to handle another student.
In ninth grade the ultimate purchase for us 14-year-old girls was not a tube of lipstick, but a whole case of Yardley Slickers, guaranteed to paint our golden girl lips the most shimmering shades, appropriately enough, of gold. We stopped buying 79-cent singles, graduating to $4 record albums. And at 17 we ceased walking anywhere, borrowing the family car to lie on crowded beaches and experiment with amorous activity wedged in the middle of bucket seats.
We competed in school to get into school. Money was no object -- even obscure private institutions prospered under 1970 trickle- down -- and only a reproachful B stood between the chosen and the vanquished in the Ivy League playoffs of the spring of 1970. For us, the high school seniors graduating into the new decade, the 1960s vanished uneventfully in a rush of PSAT and SAT scores.
That fall, however, if we were still not aware that an era was over, we were certainly made aware that other things were. Parietals were gone. Required courses were gone. One afternoon my dormitory's housemother announced tearfully that dress requirements for dinner had been abolished. And soon afterward, she was gone, too.
That year even the antiwar demonstrations drew to a tired end. As the chants dimmed and the chanters graduated, those of us who were left on campus found a yawning void, a loss of direction.
But if the politics were gone, the lifestyle wrought by the politics was alive and flourishing. We embraced marijuana as the ultimate cure for depression, loneliness, confusion and obesity. We smoked it in bed, at parties, in cars, in classrooms.
While the adult world grappled with appropriate sanctions for the use of drugs, we watched amused, stoned into peaceful indifference. Smoking became a frenetic pastime, then an obsession. We discussed fluctuations in prices, differences in quality, like so many skilled economists. The possession of marijuana literally came to mean the sweet smell of success in our world of directionless academia.
And when marijuana failed, the birth control pill beckoned. There were stages in our sexual revolution: increased grappling in high school; bold declarations of independence uttered in that first dormitory room; and, finally, sexual experiments that always seemed to end in signs of pregnancy, imagined or not, and a mass swallowing of the pill.
Every female, or so it seemed, had a near- collision with pregnancy that first year of college, if after-hours discussions could be believed. Missed periods. Late periods. Nausea. Bloated stomachs. Intimate bonds with roommates seemed to be forged not from shared midnight study sessions, but from a mutual hopping of the downtown bus to take pregnancy tests at Planned Parenthood.
We slept with our steady beaus, the friends of our steady beaus, virtually anyone who was cute and appealing. In one swallow the century-old question of whether to kiss on a first date became a Norman Rockwell vignette of the past. No one had dates anymore; groups went to movies, to concerts, and only the shutting of a bedroom door at the end of a collectively shared evening signaled who was officially a couple.
No one, it seemed, was immune to the advent of campus-wide promiscuity. Professors, married or not, cavorted with graduate students at first; when casual sex as a way of life became as institutionalized as the honor system, they switched to their undergraduate admirers. Sexual harassment was an unknown concept then; to be fair, many students viewed bedding down with a teacher as an accomplishment, like the acquisition of a Phi Beta Kappa key.
Significantly, the one dynamic political movement in those days, women's liberation, gained much of its momentum from the sexual ferment. Women who came of age in the '60s generally trace their interest in feminism to the realization that their male co-demonstrators in various causes still viewed women as subordinate. Many women coming of age in the '70s, however, first embraced feminism when they realized there was no gynecologist on campus to distribute birth control advice and devices.
Sexual freedom led to sexual awareness which led to sexual awakening, and suddenly there was no stopping the women who had once aspired to be varsity cheerleaders.
We rallied, organized and demanded. Women's studies. Better campus security. Adequate housing. More women faculty. The male students, stripped of causes and comparable passion, either hooted form the sidelines, ambivalently listened to our speakers (especially Jane Fonda, who packed my college's otherwise sedate auditorium), or worked with their women side by side, painting signs, writing petitions, staging protests.
And with the spotlight squarely focused on their movements, the women in those years furiously discarded all the trappings of tradition to arrive at a new identity as familiar as the boy next door; it was the boy next door.
Achievement for us became synonymous with male activity. Women who secretly wanted to become teachers or social workers, engulfed by the new expectations, elected seemingly loftier professions instead, sometimes knowing nothing about those professions. Women who might have happily married after college postponed such old-fashioned unions, sure that they had to achieve something else first. Caught in an exhilarating whirl of barriers tumbling and doors opening, who stopped to think about the consequences of our choices, the mysterious future that was so many electives away?
We could not imagine a time when we would not be young. Our emphasis on delayed commitment to anything was built on the assumption that we had all the time in the world to delay what our parents had experienced at a much younger age: marriage, children, working, financial responsibility.
Of course, there were warning signs that not all would be right: the first gasoline shortage in 1974; whispered advice from faculty members that professional school would be wiser than graduate school, that the job market was growing tighter; and the mysterious stream of undergraduates that followed us, always studying, always serious, that somehow had heard it was time to buckle down.
Those whispers about the job market grew louder that last year of college, and everyone suddenly seemed to be heading to law school. The curricula that emphasized electives and frowned on required courses had produced articulate generalists who pushed further ahead because they simply did not know what else to do.
Not old enough to have been fully caught in the political explosions on college campuses, and young enough to have known nothing but affluence for 22 years, we clustered around career opportunities that seemed to guarantee a continuing golden life. Taking risks seemed foolish, almost a sign of failure, as everyone from dance majors to Italian Renaissance scholars scrambled for the same advanced degree.
The economy that had brought us English racers, Barbie dolls and console color TVs increasingly was showing signs of sickness. The more it ailed, the greater our need grew for security. By our late twenties, even business schools, the haven of the most conservative students in 1974, were booming. And we did not laugh anymore at those who applied; some of our best friends had MBAs.
Flannel shirts and raggedy dungarees went, as did sandals, workboots, long hair, shaggy sideburns, mustaches, unshaved female legs, knapsacks, wire-rim glasses, cheap wine and roach clips. To compete ruthlessly against each other for jobs, we stripped ourselves of any lingering signs of brash youth. It was not enough that women had been persuaded that good jobs were traditionally men's jobs; now scores of books instructed them that with a little care, they could dress like men, too.
The crowds of us kept swelling, pushing. We all went looking at the same time, it seems, for a house, the price of which skyrocketed the minute we stepped inside. We sighed wearily about fading opportunities.
We had grown up believing we had every option for the asking. Mom and Dad, their memories of the Depression fierce enough to compel them to spare their children nothing, gave us material possession after material possession, but, more importantly, instilled in us the feeling that when their roles as chief providers ended, other institutions would pick up the tab.
Universities would shower us with scholarships and fellowships; employers would pay us considerable sums and ask in return only that we attain deep self-satisfaction; the government would bestow on us FHA loans and quality TV shows imported from England and Social Security checks in the event we ever started to age. And not having been politicized like so many of our older brothers and sisters, we didn't even bother to organize, if just to fight back when all the spoon-feeding and pampering began to fade in a stagnating economy.
Instead, we panicked, then retreated to every niche that promised a semblance of the security we knew as children. Many of us, once bent on helping the poor or acquiring a PhD in Chinese studies, succumbed to the need to have enough to be able to keep buying those English racers and color televisions -- and new wants like expensive stereos, video cassette recorders, Cuisinarts, jogging suits, Liz Claiborne stretch jeans, French wines, Frye boots and brass beds.
In the pursuit of self-gratification and security, we postponed marriages and children. Relationships and their eventual progeny meant not only economic sacrifice, but a concession that we were growing older. And one thing we could never concede was our youth: We aimed to preserve it above all else.
The craze to achieve perfect physical fitness and a perpetually youthful figure exploded as my peer group dangerously neared 30. So instead of commitments, we talked aboutity.
Of cour diets. Instead of politics, we discussed aerobic dancing, racquetball and yoga. We agreed that Ronald Reagan might prove disastrous for the country but thought that cellulite on the backs of legs was worse. And marriage -- marriage meant children; children meant we might lose our shapes to become parents; parents, our memories told us, are old; and we insist we will always be the kids on the block.
We have now routinely used birth control for 10 years and have become so accustomed to instant sexual gratification without entanglement that those of us who finally married were subject to simple amazement from peers. "What for?" "Marriage is not necessary until you want children." "But you're only 27!"
The need for economic security, the squelching of the need for marriage and children, have kept us squarely fixed on job-related status for identification. And already at our age, we are paying the price.
The men I know are confused and dispirited. They talk about abandoning careers and opening stores, restaurants, in small towns, by lovely lakes. But they never will, they know they never will, as they trudge to modern offices, serenaded by Muzak renditions of Beatles melodies.
To succeed, many have abandoned whatever tenuous principles they once held. If they are single, they often return alone to apartments of condominiums to watch HBO movies, wondering how to meet decent women who will not insist that their men be assertive, sensitive and high-salaried. If they are married, they return home to share tedious household responsibilities with wives who are as weary of the corporate world as they are, but who are more insistent that they have a strong shoulder on which to cry away that frustrating world.
And the women -- the women I know confronting 30 are simply panicking. The single women are panicking at the prospect of remaining single. The married women are panicking at the prospect of remaining childless. The women at work panic that they will remain office drones, and the women at home panic that they will never escape.
The feminist protesting, the picketing, the fiery college rhetoric of the '70s somehow became grounded in the notion that success is a tailored charcoal wool suit, worn 10 or 12 hours daily in a big, gleaming office.
While the men wondered plaintively if the traditional success mill was-all-there-was-or- ever-could-be, the women dived in eagerly, ready to embrace the pressures, the tension, all in the name of liberation. For a while, the novelty of the substantial paycheck and the material comforts it assured were exhilarating. As time wore on, however, the dubious achievement of attaining alleged status in the corporate world became a consuming goal in itself: The women, for example, who had once contributed a braininess to the feminist movement had no more time to share with other feminists.
And with no children of our own -- who had the time to debate the issue? -- we ignored the looming issue of insufficient daycare. With no commitment to spare, we watched impassively the steady erosion of the ERA, the backsliding on the abortion issue. Yet now that we're nearing 30, we are realizing in panic that the rigid concept of success we adopted from men who were so sick and tired of that concept has trapped us as surely as it trapped them.
Most of my female peers now work all day, many at boring paperwork-at-desk careers once favored over more people-oriented careers snidely considered to be women's work. Somehow, we eagerly bought the notion that the dullest tasks could be the most prestigious. Women I know who once sneered at the notion of becoming those social workers and teachers have discovered, to their chagrin, that they really want to be social workers and teachers after all.
And with the coming of 30, we listen to those biological time clocks ticking louder and wonder if we will ever have families. The obstacles we ourselves planted in our twenties, however, are now firmly rooted: It is harder to take the time to have a baby; it is f cour harder to relinquish the salary; it is harder to return to work without adequate daycare.
Ironically, the more my age group has made career and family choices based on a need for economic well-being, the more the economy and our sheer multitudes have played cruel tricks with our choices. We may, on paper, earn more money than our parents ever did, but our standard of living is surely declining: We cannot afford the suburban houses we grew up in; we find it difficult to buy the car model that transported us to and from high school; we probably cannot afford the tuition at our own alma maters.
In the long run, however, the economic rebuffing of our earlier expectations may prove the catalyst that converts us from overly cautious youth to middle-aged activists. We never really had the stuff to be hollow-eyed conservatives, anyway: If nothing else, the years of smoking illegal substances and bed- hopping inculcated us with a kind of easy tolerance of others and at least mild suspicion of authority.
We were the kids no one ever profiled, caught as we were between two distinct poles marking the beginning and end of the Baby Boom generation. Having grown up when established structures, like academic curricula and sexual mores, were toppling without much resistance, we coasted to adulthood with only the determination to continue the good times. But we're learning painfully that, like everything else we've experienced thus far, adulthood has no easy guidepost.
So how will we confront our thirties? Defiantly, I think, once we adjust to the transition to an age we never thought we'd reach. We'll do all the things we postponed in our twenties: get married, have babies, switch careers, return to school.
Women will never again be docile, nor will men have to assume the lead. The battered economy and our 12-year-old sexual freedom have probably assured that. No less importantly, we will start to speak up on social issues: The grumbling among my peers about uncaring and mediocre public officials and government mismanagement is nearing a dangerously high pitch; even if only a small portion of us take action, our numbers alone will ensure a receptive audience somewhere.
Watch out for us, the babies of the early '50s. In the coming years, amid infants' squalls and the noise of hammers and saws renovating old or small houses we once would have rejected out-of-hand, our voices will finally rise above the din. We understand now how outside forces can tamper with very private dreams. The golden age is surely over for us, but a new if more somber era, when we should surely emerge as leaders at last, is about to enfold. So watch out . . . .