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Hey, kid, act your age

I got a Jerry Garcia designer tie for my birthday. It's from the new J. Garcia Art in Neckwear collection.

It's certainly a very nice tie, as ties go, with a compelling three-dimensional op art pattern (or something like that). I've worn it only twice, and it already has won more compliments than any other piece of my desultory wardrobe.

But I know what Don Henley meant: A Jerry Garcia necktie is like a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac.

I never was a certifiable Deadhead, but I've always liked Garcia's music well enough, and I've always thought that the Grateful Dead and Garcia's various offshoot bands represented a mindset that had very little to do with neckties.

Garcia studied at the San Francisco Art Institute in his pre-Dead days, and I guess it's not surprising that the old art bug would bite him again eventually. But what made him decide to design ties instead of tie-dyes?

What's next? A line of mink stoles or gourmet veal patties from k.d. lang? Flannel footie pajamas from the Madonna catalog? A syndicated Mr. Manners column from Billy Idol?

Maybe I expect too much. It's understandable, if not altogether desirable, that people tend to get progressively more conservative and lethargic as they grow older and take on families, mortgages and routinized jobs.

Anybody who lived through the Summer of Love is either middle-aged or dead now, so it's probably about time for the Dead to act middle-aged, too. They've gone from cutting-edge to semi-mainstream as they've aged, but they made that slow transition in a way that was true to their nature. At least they haven't dressed in glitter or gone on Family Feud or turned into Cher.

What isn't natural is for people to start acting like reactionary old fogeys when they're still barely old enough to vote.

For many of us who grew up in the late '60s and early '70s, nothing has ever been more disorienting or disspiriting than going on a college campus during the Reagan years and coming across hordes of bright-eyed right-wing Yupsters who were only a semester or two away from moving on to careers as junk-bond salesmen and arbitrageurs.

It was like seeing a Better Dead Than Red sticker on a Volkswagen bus.

It just ain't natural for children to be more conservative and materialistic than their parents. Ever since Socrates' time, teenagers and young adults have been put on this earth to make their elders miserable. They're supposed to question authority, wear their hair funny and generally immerse themselves in all the dubious enterprises that the rest of us no longer have the energy or guts to take on.

So it was troubling to find that 18- to 24-year-olds voted more solidly than any other age group for the retrograde Republican administrations that have been in control of the White House since 1980.

It might have made perfectly good sense for older voters to support an aging former actor who promised to take the United States back to an earlier, simpler era (well, not perfectly good sense, but you know what I mean). But the young people of most other generations wouldn't have come close to buying into that Ward Cleaver act.

Things are getting back to normal, though. George Bush is about as popular on college campuses today as Lyndon Johnson was in 1968. (And, for what it's worth, the Grateful Dead are almost as popular on college campuses today as they were in 1968.)

People in their teens and 20s are being forced to pay attention to political issues, whether they like it or not. Lots of young women are worried that the Reagan-Bush Supreme Court really could be on the verge of taking away their right to an abortion. Lots of young men had to face the possibility of being sent off to fight a war on behalf of the Kuwaiti monarchy.

They're afraid of AIDS and worried about the environment and wonder why their government hasn't made those issues a higher priority.

They can't find any of those lucrative jobs that college graduates were eagerly grabbing up in the '80s. And they tuned in the Republican convention and saw Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson and a whole Astrodome full of angry bigots who were ready to declare war on them and their culture.

No wonder the presidential campaign has become a nightly feature on MTV.

Most of this year's college-aged voters haven't been radicalized. This year's issues aren't as galvanizing as Vietnam and the civil rights movement were a generation ago.

But they have been politicized, because they're more directly affected by current political issues than young adults were a decade ago. And they're making themselves heard in a way that their predecessors in the 1980s never did. They're not necessarily right about everything, but they're not supposed to be. At least they're making their elders a little nervous again.

Getting old loses a little of its sting when you're reassured that young people have gotten back to acting their age, instead of their parents' age.

And in the corporate offices of a tie factory somewhere in the San Francisco area, Jerry Garcia must be smiling.

Robert Friedman is an editorial writer for the Times.

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