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Washed up at 35

Haven't made it yet? Feeling paranoid about the hyperambitious 23-year-old planning his IPO in the next office? Don't worry -- too much. Welcome to the new midlife crisis.

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Early one morning, a sharply dressed lawyer ducked discreetly into the faux-Oriental Park Avenue offices of Dr. Bruce Nadler, who advertises himself in the Yellow Pages as an anti-aging specialist. The young attorney was a successful, well-paid senior associate at a prominent New York firm. But he had a problem. He was 34 and feeling a little old.

"The guy told me he was going for partner," Nadler says, "but was afraid if he couldn't maintain the appearance of youth, he might not make it."

Not to worry. Two hours and $5,000 later, this old-feeling lawyer was feeling a whole lot younger. After a weeklong "vacation," he would return to his firm sporting a set of spanking-new twentysomething eyelids and a jaunty spring in his Bally-toed step.

He's not alone. "I've seen younger and younger people coming in, and more men lately," Nadler says, "and it's because of work-related reasons more than social reasons, which were the typical reasons people used to have plastic surgery.

"I see people from all professions, people in the mid-range of the hierarchy who want to move higher. Someone who's maybe 33 and wants to better his position at work might get his eyelids done. He might get some chin work, to firm up the jawline. Liposuction is very common. They're all worried about growing old. They say that companies now demand a very youthful image, and if they can't fit it, they're not going to get the promotion. They might not even keep their job. "We're even talking people in their late twenties," he adds.

Turns out you're not alone if "old" is suddenly starting to seem a whole lot younger. At the dawn of the Net-and-nasdaq-intoxicated new millennium, youth has become an increasingly valuable commodity. From Wall Street to Madison Avenue, the Manhattan career landscape has become noticeably younger -- there's a whole generation of hyperambitious overachievers propelled by manic energy, technological savvy, and an almost scary sense of entitlement.

"It's a race," explains John McDonald, 31. "Things are moving ten times faster than they used to. You think, I gotta do it now. It's a very short window."

As a generation, these bright young things have never known cold war, diminished expectations, or cloudy horizons. And as they have risen, they have blithely swept away decades-old career assumptions -- biding your time, waiting your turn, dressing for success have become as quaint as the Apple IIc. The Instant Score is the new theology. Like Peter Pan, the kids know that all you have to do is believe.

If you're old enough to remember music on vinyl and teenagers in jeans that fit, but not so old that you remember, say, Maxwell Smart in prime time, then all of this is a bit eerie: In its flashier, more careeristic quarters, at least, the city has started to feel a little like the seventies sci-fi film Logan's Run, about a futuristic civilization in which citizens, even those as comely as Farrah Fawcett, are sent for "renewal" -- that is, execution -- upon turning 30. For the generation that came of age during George Bush's recession, it's as if the rules got changed in the middle of the game. Who wouldn't feel a little paranoid?

"When I graduated from college, I didn't think I was going to get a job," says one downtown advertising executive, 31. "Everyone was always saying we were going to be the first generation in America to live worse than our parents. We were spoon-fed that all through college. But now I've got two younger brothers, and they're like, 'I think I'll get my first job at 60 grand.' I'm like, 'What?' It's a harsh reality for me. But they turn around and do it. They're like, 'Yeah, I just got a job at an Internet company, and I've got 30,000 shares of stock options. I'm just going, 'What? I'm four years older than you.' What did I do wrong?"

It's one thing to know that you weren't going to do as well as Mom and Dad. But no one ever mentioned that you were also going to do worse than your little brother.

Turning 35, of course, has never been without its complications. Halfway to 70, we're nearly halfway to death, at least in terms of America's mean life expectancy of 76. But now grafted onto the traditional anxieties are a whole set of new ones -- immediate, cultural, economic.

"The basic issues around this age are still the same," says Gail Sheehy, author of the seminal midlife-crisis guidebook Passages. "By 35, you've paid your dues, you've proven you're competent, but you become dissatisfied by the confines of your life. It's natural to feel restless. But now this restlessness is exaggerated. It comes from thinking, 'My God, if I don't become a Web zillionaire in a year or two, the kids are going to come and take it all away from me.' "

The strange thing is that these anxieties are percolating at precisely the moment that there appears to be little reason for them: Even after its recent cool-off, the stock market is still plenty warm, the job market is historically tight, and few are actually put out to pasture at 36. Still, when you talk to people in their thirties, you get a sense of vague, growing panic.

When are you going to pop?

Today? Tomorrow? Never?


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