Adults Do The Darndest Things

Like Peter Pan, more and more Americans are refusing to act their age


Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes, and the Reinvention of the American Grown-up

By Christopher Noxon

Crown -- 275pp -- $23.95

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Editor's Review

Three Stars
Star Rating

The Good A breezy account of how many U.S. adults are refusing to act their age

The Bad Some of the author's examples of middle-age "kids" can be downright creepy

The Bottom Line A provocative analysis of a youth-celebrating consumer culture

Among viewers 18 to 34, the Cartoon Network boasts higher overall ratings than CNN (TWX ), Fox News (NWS ), or any cable news channel. Many visitors to Disney World (DIS ) are adults who don't go with children, helping to make the Magic Kingdom the No. 1 adult vacation destination in the world. And the average age of video game players is 29, up from 18 in 1990, according to the Entertainment Software Assn.

What's going on? Well, for one thing, says Christopher Noxon in Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes, and the Reinvention of the American Grown-up, adults just wanna have fun. Put in the grandest terms, many believe that as they age, it's still possible to sense the wonder, adventure, and absurdity of childhood. This impulse toward what the author calls "rejuvenalia" at its best arises from the desire to be free of plans, schedules, and to-do lists -- or, as Noxon writes, "to experience time the way we did as kids, to find some relief from the anxiety of the future tense." Who wouldn't want a little of that? But what it often turns into, in Noxon's telling, is adults buying things (from cars to clothes to music and movies) intended for people half their age. It's a tendency that's both reflected in and encouraged by America's high-velocity consumer culture. Noxon, whose book is breezy, provocative, and sometimes downright unsettling, worries that rejuveniles may, at some point, "morph from fun and free-spirited to just plain pathetic."

Noxon draws on history to show that rejuveniles have been around for ages. Examples include William Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, Peter Pan playwright J.M. Barrie, and, of course, those like Walt Disney who saw profit-making potential in the phenomenon. The author identifies the first sign of the commercialization of childhood as coming in 1889, when a kid's marble-in-a-maze puzzle called Pigs in Clover became an adult obsession.

But Noxon also argues that today's rejuveniles -- mostly members of the urban professional classes, more likely male than female, and, in some way, a product of uncertain times -- have so grown in number and influence that they are challenging our notions of what it means to be an adult. More young people are waiting longer to leave their parents' homes, get married, and start families. Is that the cause of the trend or merely a symptom? Probably both, says Noxon. "Practical economic and social realities" -- student debt, the difficulty of finding a good first job, an unwillingness to scrimp -- "have had an unexpected consequence: They've created ideal conditions for the rejuvenile," he says.

At the same time, we live in a youth-celebrating culture, one we've both helped create and bought into. It seems that you're either hip to today's kids or you're irrelevant. It is why even people who would never admit to being rejuveniles (or to any of the other equally awkward names coined by observers of the trend, including "kidults," "adultescents," and "Twixters") might nevertheless read the Harry Potter books or use street slang. It's behind what Noxon calls the "toyification" of everything from cars to computers (a grape-colored iMac, anybody?) to kitchen gadgets. Baby boomers' desire for things made for younger consumers is so pronounced that marketers have given it a name: "downward aspiration."

Noxon owns up to his own rejuvenalia. He dedicates his book to his playmates, his three children. He would call himself law-abiding and hard-working; he has a mortgage and a minivan. But he would never say he's mature. He hates to talk about mutual funds, lawn care, or even wine -- topics he considers fit only for consumption by grown-ups.

The other rejuveniles Noxon finds include a mother who takes up skateboarding (her son thinks she's crazy) and two men who started a kickball league. Others play tag or dodgeball, build with LEGOs, collect dolls, and paint faces for a living. Noxon assures us that these aren't hipsters on a lark. There is no ironic posturing in their viewing of the Muppets or playing with GI Joe.

Some social critics, such as journalist Susan Littwin, author of The Postponed Generation, regard the rejuvenile impulse as irresponsible, the result of a lifetime of overindulgence. When it comes to a few of the people whom Noxon describes, such as the woman who wanted to make a career out of her passion for skipping or the middle-age couple who visit a Disney park once a month, I'd say that at the very least they're taking this kid thing a little too seriously.

And of course here's the strangest thing of all: Actual children can't wait to grow up.

By Susan Berfield

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