39? It's nothing but a number

The media would have us believe we should all be young, rich and powerful. So how come, at this threshold of irrelevance, life has never been better?

Published November 5, 2005

The headline sneered at me, like a young guy in a sports car cutting me off in traffic.

Peering just over Colin Farrell's shoulder on the cover of this month's Details magazine, the bold type was curt, and a little intimidating: The 50 Most Powerful Men Under 39.

Normally, such a piece would prove a fleeting diversion, something to kill time in a waiting room or supermarket checkout line as I indulged the inevitable second-guessing. (Angelina Jolie's son Maddox at No. 2? What, Britney's kid wasn't hip enough?) But then I had a second thought.

Because my 40th birthday is tomorrow. And all of a sudden, I'm stuck wondering what's so important about being 39 that I missed.

"I hate to break it to you, but your life's about to end," said Brian Farnham, deputy editor of Details, only half-joking. "Once you're approaching 40, you're approaching the tail end of an incredibly important marketing demographic. It sort of feels like, once you get there, you're not of interest for the people who make entertainment - you do sort of drop off their radar. Basically, the more MTV-ified the culture, the tougher it is to get older."

Now, I'm used to the world of TV, where this Logan's Run-style disregard for elders doesn't really kick in until viewers get over 50.

By then, say the marketing experts, you've already built your alliances to specific products, you're not as influenced by peer pressure and you have many fewer years ahead of you as a consumer. (Don't bother sending letters noting you also have more money and willingness to buy big stuff; McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Nike don't really care.)

I also suspect such demarcations have as much to do with the marketers and advertisers as the consumers: It's way cooler to bankroll ads featuring Jay-Z or Jessica Simpson than Angela Lansbury - even if it's the Lansbury demographic that has all the dough.

And this suspicion was strengthened by an admission from Farnham, 34, who noted he and editor Daniel Peres, also 34, decided to push this year's list up from 2004's age 38, as both of them edged a bit closer to the line themselves.

"Every magazine has this problem . . . your readership ages with you," said Farnham, who noted he plans "to shave my head and start lying about my age" when he hits the big 4-0. "We admit we're advancing, but we're not at 40, no need to panic. We are a magazine for younger men . . . and it's in our interest to keep ourselves directed at guys in their 30s."

A look at Details' list confirms this. Not only is the kid mostly likely to win a hot mom contest perched at No. 2 (the official explanation: Maddox caught a fatherhood-obsessed Brad Pitt's attention, breaking up the Pitt-Jennifer Aniston power couple), but there's the expected rappers (Eminem, 50 Cent), Internet and computer pioneers (Google founders, iPod designer) and Hollywood stars (Vince Vaughn, Leonardo DiCaprio).

There are some surprises. Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr clocks in at No. 21, above Matt Damon and Lebron James. And Britney's beau K-Fed - or Kevin Federline to you over-40s - makes No. 39 as a high school dropout who got the pop princess to propose to him with a $400,000 engagement ring, despite having an ex-girlfriend pregnant with his second child.

"He's the ultimate kept man," Farnham said, his voice equal parts wonder, disdain and hats-off-to-ya resignation. "Celebrities are the cool kids of the world . . . and we have more cool kids in the culture now. I am the last person to explain why."

Listed at No. 1 is The Dead Warrior, or our ground-level troops in Iraq (average age: 27), whose inability to control where and how long they are deployed probably make them the least powerful people on this power list.

Three men who probably should have gotten their own entries are clustered at No. 24 as The Black Leading Man (Will Smith, Jamie Foxx and Terence Howard), while I don't see any Hispanic men. And among those whose ethnicities I know or can see in photos, not one black person is listed who isn't a rapper, actor or sports star.

"I hadn't noticed that . . . and race is not a consideration at all in making the list," Farnham said. "The point is to look around at anybody in our peer group . . . (and) define those guys (in whose shoes) we wish we were. . . . It's a very scientific process which involves a lot of late nights and coffee and doughnuts."

So this list is mostly Who Thirtysomething White Guys Wish They Were. And that makes perfect sense to Samir Husni, chairman of the journalism department at the University of Mississippi - whose expertise in deconstructing the magazine industry has led to his nickname, Mr. Magazine.

"For many magazines, the magic number is (age) 24 to 39," he said. "That's where, supposedly, you spend more, you have a job . . . but you're still liquid. Your family is young, you're still buying the big items and you're not to the point where you're saving for retirement yet."

Husni noted it has been five years since Details reinvented itself from an image as a covert magazine for gay men - lots of pictures of Michael Stipe and men looking at each other longingly - and morphed into a magazine for metrosexuals.

Following a path also trod by GQ and Esquire, Details freed male readers from the macho images of some other men's magazines, saying it was okay for heterosexual guys to focus on fashion, celebrity and pop culture trends, he added.

And with the November issue's first-person column on covering Hurricane Katrina by 36-year-old CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, a story on appreciating the troubled 31-year-old model Kate Moss and a profile of 29-year-old Farrell, the magazine's emphasis on middle-aged youth is obvious.

"We used to worship people older than us . . . but we live in the microwave generation, where we want everything instantly," said Husni, 52, who admitted enjoying Details himself. "Now everybody wants to be under 40, and everybody wants to be successful under 40. When you pick up a magazine that says - "You're 39, what have you accomplished?' - the whole idea is to get you to do something . . . buy things that will make you feel more successful."

So, in the same way Cosmopolitan magazine makes women feel bad about their appearance or abilities to sell them stuff, it seems Details and its fellow metrosexual journals are following suit on the other side of the gender divide.

But Kristin McCracken, author of 101 Things to Do Before You Turn 40, suggests I (and any of you about to cross this significant Rubicon) don't believe the hype.

"The last page of my book says to accept that 40 is the new 30," said McCracken, 35, who developed her list with suggestions from friends - including stuff serious as paying off credit card debt and silly as dating someone under 25 one more time. "People are in better shape. They're thinking younger. Don't look at 40 as the end of everything. . . . Think of it as a clean slate."

While talking to all these folks about turning 40, a comforting thought came to me. Every year of my life, I've made more money, enjoyed more job challenges, expanded my family and improved my home. So why wouldn't 40 and beyond continue that welcome trend?

Perhaps that's the true gift of the under-39 power list: To realize that, at age 40, getting and keeping power may not matter so much anymore.

"We all decided we knew ourselves better now than we did in our 20s, which is just something that comes from maturity . . . and makes life better," McCracken said. "Or maybe the secret is to just keep hanging out with older people, because you always feel young."

- Eric Deggans can be reached at 727 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media