National Post Kidults should grow up (National Post, December 19, 2003)

National Post - Friday December 19th, 2003

We saw the movie Elf last week, expecting the silliness kids like plus some sly comic winking at adults, like Shrek, Toy Story, and other modern kid-themed movies. But no, it was only funny for little'uns. When you think about it, that's how it should be. But we have come to expect blurred kid/adult boundaries -- and not just in movies.

In New York people are eating macaroni and cheese, and milk and cookies. Grown-ups, that is, and not in front of their TVs, but in real restaurants. This cluster of single, affluent 20-40 somethings with leisure time and no fixed future plans, has been dubbed "rejuveniles," "adultolescents," "kidults" and "postmodern postadolescents," but never mind the jargon, we all know who they are: They're laugh-a-minute Friends.

TV jollity turns creepy in real life. The average age of video game players was 18 in 1990, 29 in 2003. Fewer than one third of below-thirties voted in the last election. More 18-49 year olds watch the Cartoon Network than CNN. These trends suggest there is no longer a clear chronological cutoff point to youth.

The first generation for whom divorce is the social norm, kidults make friends their family, preferring group camaraderie to committed love. They have brains, but choose to watch TV and play video games, when not obsessing over their appearance and social trivia. Oblivious to the outside world, theirs is a demographic "with no history and no social purpose."

Kidults' parents, Boomers Senior, are in age denial as well. They shop at age-neutral Gap, go to the same rock concerts and (try to) play sports as hard as their kids. The new cartoon-like Honda Element, target-marketing college age extreme athletes, is selling to 40- and 50-year olds. AOL commercials show kids studying, while giggling fathers surf cartoon sites. Diet Pepsi's slogan? "Forever Young."

Kidults are stalled between what used to be well-defined, continuous stages of growth. You grew up, went to school, got a job, got married. Marriage was exciting; it signified taking on an adult's responsibility and was the one sure measure of your independence and maturity. Writer Joseph Epstein recalls: "Everything in the culture of the 1950s provoked one to grow up. The ideal, in the movies and in life, was adulthood."

Even in the '70s Mary Tyler Moore, the breakthrough singleton icon ("you're going to make it after all") knew "making it" included finding Mr. Right, for whom she would happily have demoted her friendships. She yearned for marriage, realizing she was in a socially untenable stasis. She wouldn't fret today. Many brides and grooms are what used to be the young middle-aged. It's called "cross-aging," a historical first.

Fear of marriage and obsession with "play" are the signature characteristics of kidults. The Italian company Kidult Games markets to "adults who take care of their kid inside." A Care Bear rep adds, "We're seeing this phenomenon worldwide."

Social conservatives attribute the failure to mature largely to the creed of premature and promiscuous sexualization that stamped the '60s counterculture generation and is coming home to roost in their children.

They're right. Marriage and motherhood-scorning feminism is the ideology behind decades of education that validates self-entitlement without responsibility, while actively encouraging sexual awareness in children. Feminism encourages early autonomy from parents, and in the process lends exaggerated importance to destructive peer pressure. Early ripe, early rot. Childhood has been banished: by 18, kids are sexually surfeited and jaded, ironically programmed to disengage sex from intimacy and the trust that leads to commitment.

In her memoirs (sic!), Monica Lewinsky boasts that at age two she defied her mother's attempts at discipline with what may be called the "kidult" war cry: "You're not the boss of me!" Instead of using her White House internship to explore the exciting world beyond Monica, she chose to "explore her sexuality" (in the postmodern parlance nobody has plain sex) with Bill Clinton, the second most famous kidult on the planet. (Kidults hate President Bush because he put aside his early immaturity and soberly embraced responsible adulthood.)

According to sociologist Frank Furendi, "Adulthood has got nothing attractive about it anymore. That's actually quite sad." The Boomers can't let go of the childhood they had. Their children are trying to experience the childhood they were denied. TV, not very helpfully, is telling everyone that youth is all that matters.

A lonely child creates an imaginary friend. Kidults do too; they call it their "inner child." The world's most famous kidult, Michael Jackson, is all about pretending he never grew up. Which brings us to the most famous kidult in fiction: J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan was originally meant for children, but check out the audience for this year's movie remake. They'll be mostly adults, but wishing they were Lost Boys and Girls.

© National Post 2003