Baby boomers fall back on conservation



NEW YORK (AP)—Looking for a sign of the times? Try a circle with a red slash through it and fill in the blank.

No smoking—in offices, restaurants, planes, airports, the White House and sports stadiums (baseball has even banned cigarettes and chewing tobacco in all minor league parks). Smoking is also prohibited in bars in the California towns of San Luis Obispo and Davis.

No drugs.

No drinking, at least the hard stuff, although a glass of wine with a meal is OK.

No fat and no cholesterol. Fish, pasta, poultry and oat bran are in; red meat and fried eggs are not. And please, Simplesse instead of superpremium ice cream for dessert.

No sex? Get real. But at least the freewheelers have been warned about the risks. And, by the way, no unwanted flirtations in the workplace.

Tune in to the new mating call: ‘‘Drug-free, disease-free, nonsmoking, nondrinking, nonreligious, trim, politically correct vegetarian seeks soulmate with runner’s high to lighten decaf brew with nondairy creamer.’‘

What’s it all mean?

This is the age of self-control and self-denial. Self-indulgence is not in one’s self-interest.

Some call it New Puritanism, Neo-Prohibitionism or Non-ism, although those names are clumsy fits. The people who observe social patterns believe it’s more accurate to call it Preservationism.

‘‘It’s not puritanical. It’s aging. Baby boomers who had a long run at youth are looking age in the face and saying, ‘Holy cow, I’m not going to live forever and I’ve been living like I would,’‘’ said Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist at the University of Washington.

‘‘It’s not narcissism. It is the preservation of the active and good life for a group of people who believe life is precious. There’s a perspective at the risks one used to take, a feeling that I may have done it then but now I see the light,’‘ she said.

Ironic, huh?

A generation defined by wretched excess, one that questioned authority and parental values while searching for life’s deeper meaning, has sobered as it reaches midlife parenthood and positions of responsibility. What goes around, comes around.

Yet from an historical perspective, the swing is hardly extraordinary.

‘‘Every time you see a generation of narcissists in their 30s, you find a generation of moralists in their 50s,’‘ said Neil Howe, co-author of the book ‘‘Generations.’‘

‘‘They become very value focused in midlife. A boomer is like a black-cloaked preacher with a purgative tonic. There’s a pessimistic edge, a dark edge, a tone of finality separating good from bad.’‘

Howe finds one parallel at the turn of the century. Red meat was on the outs when muckraking author Upton Sinclair’s ‘‘The Jungle’‘ carped about Chicago meatpacking practices. And crusading evangelists helped outlaw heroin, cocaine and ultimately booze during Prohibition.

An earlier comparison involves the Puritans, noted for their solemn spirit of morality and religion that determined their whole way of life in colonial America. The Puritans fostered the ‘‘blue laws’‘ to keep the Sabbath holy, and they went to extremes even in their black-and-white garb.

Although Puritans had plenty of scarlet letters, they had no aversion to alcohol, and some historians say one out of three colonial marriages came when the bride was pregnant. Still, H.L. Mencken once described Puritanism as ‘‘the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.’‘

Of course, any place as large and as complex as America contains pockets and countertrends where people smoke heavily, eat freely, drink liberally, have sex openly and can claim to live rich, full lives.

But in general, one-time symbols of hipness—cigarettes, lines of white powder, roach clips, a martini tumbler, ample waistlines—carry baggage as icons of the low-life.

According to an Associated Press poll taken by ICR Survey Research Group of Media, Pa., part of AUS Consultants, 60 percent believe the practice of healthy habits with regard to diet, exercise, drinking, drugs and personal behavior is increasing. And 78 percent said they personally worry some or a great deal about healthy behavior.

By sheer weight of numbers, the bulge in the population born after World War II influences older and younger generations. Per capita consumption of cigarettes and hard liquor have dropped significantly from 1980, and beer and wine consumption is down.

But baby boomer progeny are part of the pattern. Among high school seniors, drinking and smoking are down sharply, and in a recent survey conducted by the University of Michigan’s Social Research Center, 73 percent said smoking is a dirty habit and 61 percent think smoking reflects poor judgment.

Purification is in the air. The self-improvement agenda includes unclogging arteries, trimming body fat and increasing aerobic capacity. All of which seem more doable than restoring the ozone or saving the rain forests, the lungs of the earth.

‘‘The feeling is if one can’t do anything about external circumstances, at least they can get their own lives in order,’‘ said Robin Room, a sociologist with the Addiction Research Foundation in Toronto.

‘‘There are quite important changes going on. This isn’t happening the same way everywhere,’‘ he said. ‘‘But people are more concerned about their health. Health is a new kind of religion.’‘

Ah, religion.

The same people who are taking better care of their lungs, livers and hearts are also tending to their souls. Baby boomers who once chanted ‘‘party hearty’‘ are going back to church.

‘‘Boomers grew up without boundaries. They gave themselves permission to do all kinds of things. Now that they have kids, they want their children to have structure and boundaries. Without banks, a river doesn’t flow,’‘ said Ira Zepp, professor of religious studies at Western Maryland College.