MAY A WORD be inserted edgewise into the mounting heap of attacks on Washington's young professionals? A word of praise, that is?

Granted, the young lawyers, executives and foundation bureaucrats one sees in downtown Washington may have all the vitality of milk-fed veal. On the other hand, is it possible that they're leading us through a revolution in human consciousness?

I noticed it recently while walking to the M Street Deli with a friend. There were a lot of women around us, women about 25 to 35, the pride and product of raised consciousness, the savvy, networking soon-to-be law partners, the young service-industry leaders who have formed a generation unknown 30 years ago.

They were well-dressed and comely. They were bright-eyed with bottled water and intelligence. Their wonderful legs were turned by the lathe of endless aerobics. They were thick-haired with gourmet shampoos.

One shivers to imagine the sort of reaction they might have drawn from the men of downtown Washington, not so long ago. Park-bench catcalls! Horrible greasy strip-you-naked stares! Pinstriped male barracudas rotating over the great reefs of lunch-hour sidewalks as the angelfish slid by!

But there was none of that for these young professionals.

In fact, even though I confess that I have done a bit of leering of my own in the past, I didn't even think about these women until I noticed that, strangely enough, I wasn't noticing them at all. How bizarre! I was swimming in a teeming tide of angelfish to whom I paid no attention whatsoever! What was going on?I paid no attention whatsoever! What was going on?

I turned to my friend.

"All these women," I said. "They're great looking but they have no sex appeal at all."

"I've been noticing that recently," my friend said. "The only sexy ones any more are the older ones."

The older ones. Ah yes, the pre-feminists, the ones who inherited the last of the man-pleasing mentality of an oppressive patriarchal era, which is to say the era I grew up in. My first instinct was to congratulate myself for finally having achieved correctness of attitude toward women, but sad experience and the occasional knuckle-rapping have shown me the folly of such a claim.

No, the credit must go to the same young professionals whom cynics attack for their lean-cuisine attitude toward sex, fun and life itself -- credit not to the men, of course, but to the women who have proved once more that if you want to get the job done, do it yourself. (And get the right tools for the job. And put the tools back when you're through.)

The point here is that much as conservatives and bio-determinists (largely male) may claim that human nature can't change, there is a hint of progress, thanks to this generation and tax bracket of women boldly going where no person has gone before. And getting there without being leered and hooted at.

Shouldn't we be grateful that these women have managed to break the iron link between anatomy and destiny, between craven, patriarchal-oppressive barracuda sex fantasies and the rights of all citizens to walk in peace from iced-tea power lunch to office, from aerobics class to catalogue showroom?

What an accomplishment! And how fascinating that for the first time in perhaps all of history, the tragedy of aging may have ended, and older women seem sexier than younger ones!

Now we must be vigilant against backsliding.

Indeed, I felt a chill reactionary wind on the very night of my epiphany. I described the scene to a member of a still younger generation, my daughter, 17; my beautiful Hannah who was co-captain of her high school track team and president of her class and a veteran of jobs at Washington lobbying and law firms since she was 15 -- everything that the New Consciousness could ask for, I suspected, until she brought me up short.

"I know exactly the kind of women you're talking about," she said, with that executive certainty women get in their voice when they discuss femininity with a man. "They're all over downtown."

"It's not just me?" I asked.

"It's them," she assured me. Then she startled me by adding: "I'm never going to be like that."

No! Is she serious? Do other 17-year-olds feel that way too? Will I be left behind by yet another generation? Will they change the rules yet again? Am I doomed to spend my whole life playing catch-up ball in the game of life?

For now, all I know is that the young professionals have made it possible for me to amble among today's finest young women and keep my mind firmly on issues of social progress -- emerging democracies of Eastern Europe, the Law of the Sea treaty and so on -- all the things it's often hard to think about at home, given the infinite charms of my wife, 40.

Henry Allen is a Washington Post reporter.