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Jack shows his generation how to bite the brat pack

IF TINY ROWLAND, 76, wants another good laugh after fighting off the attack of 55-year-old Dieter Bock he should go and watch Jack Nicholson in Wolf.

Wolf is a modern parable sent to cheer the ageing. Last week when I settled down with a pack of popcorn before it everyone of 35 and over was shrieking and howling in unison with Nicholson. The twentysomethings' big eyes were blank, their smooth, not to say characterless, faces expressing nothing but bafflement as wrinkled Jack cavorted and survived.

The key to this age divide is the fact that the villain of Wolf is not the hairy and ancient Mr Nicholson, but James Spader as the recently weaned, wide-eyed glad- hander in pursuit of his job: full of energy, insincerity and ambition, an archetype, a young wolf draped in Bambi's skin.

Wolf's audience appeal lies in the fact that every member of the post-war boom generation has now, in middle age, one of these at his back - if not, heaven help us, already ahead in the pack. The shadow of redundancies and mortgage debt hangs over the Sixties generation. In the US, the boys who once feared the Vietnam draft now most fear the mixture of debt and joblessness that reduces middle-class Americans to living out of their cars. The fears of their British peers have braked recovery for the past few years. And they feel more threatened by a new, strange phenomenon of youth.

At 25, in boom time, the Sixties kids had the luxury of looking for free love and pot, not promotion. The self-seeking drive of middle- class Nineties youth, brought up through college to expect to compete for scarce jobs, the predatory networking dinner parties, the deliberate buttering up of useful elders they dislike, sickens the Sixties generation. No wonder they cheer when Nicholson pees on Bambi's expensive shoes in the company urinal. 'Just marking my territory,' he drawls. The twentysomethings watching looked disgusted. The rest of us laughed.

No wonder there is admiration for the old wolf, Tiny Rowland, who has hung on to pounds 5m worth of power and perks as joint chief executive at Lonhro at 76. Rowland, like Nicholson, stays cool and wily as younger members of the pack challenge the grey muzzled leader.

'At my age you don't really expect me to be seriously worried about anything,' he said before he narrowed his eyes and stalked into the boardroom. 'I can understand that young men are ambitious and I'm an old man. It stands to reason that young men will try to see me leave . . .' And then, a glint: 'I don't think it will happen.'

Rowland is a survivor at an age when the best prospect for most of us is a life on the Costa del Sol contemplating embalmment. His victory, like Nicholson's, gives hope that experience matters more than energy. It may be an unrealistic hope, but to the fortysomethings whom this recession shook out of jobs in favour of younger, cheaper colleagues, and to friends who watched, any hope will do.

Some of them are, like Nicholson, beginning to bite back. Two weeks ago the Financial Times reported the case of Brian Winch of Knapton, Norfolk, now in his fifties, made redundant three times. He found that some recruitment consultants ruled out the over-45s, let alone the over-50s. He also found personnel departments a main source of prejudice against his age. Now he's back as MD of a manufacturing company he does not hire the consultants who would not use him. More than that: 'My first action in a company is to declare redundant the whole of the personnel department and not replace them,' he said.

Now is a tough time for those who remember Woodstock. The power of youth was a concept they created. Now they look in the mirror, and the locks are grizzled, and the teeth are yellowing. Against their will, they are changing shape. Jack Nicholson looks over his shoulder and sees the dazzling vacuity of Hugh Grant. Peter Palumbo, who once stood for youth and radical architecture, glances behind where his handsome son, James, paces his track, lawyers at his heels, pursuing him over cash.

The rest of us have our ears back, listening to the Government saying that 40 per cent of employers admit discriminating on grounds of age, some of them against workers over 30 years old.

The only hope for the generation which invented teenage rebellion is that somehow it can remake age in its own image: potent, radical, unfettered. They are trying. The oldest of the babies born at the end of the Second World War are approaching 50 now. 'At 50,' says Erica 'Zipless' Jong in her book Fear of Fifty, published in Britain by Chatto this week, 'the madwoman in the attic breaks loose, stamps down the stairs and sets fire to the house.'

It is a prospect nearly as cheering, if unlikely, as Wolf. Are the baby boomers going to protest to the end? In 30 years' time will the old folks' homes be shaking to the old tunes? 'One, two, three, four, what are we fightin' for? . . . Open up those Pearly Gates - whoopee] We're all gonna die.'