Are longer lifespans making adults more childish?
Over the weekend, the NYT gave us a flashback op-ed from 1990 on making Halloween less childish. Before the civilizing trend of the early-mid 1990s through today, it was still possible to talk about Halloween as having been handed over to a bunch of goofy kiddies. Now, helicopter parents have destroyed the holiday for their kids, and it's mostly old people who go nuts. (Here's a post I wrote last year about how the skag stole Halloween.)
If Halloween isn't supposed to be about little children asking for candy, what should it be about, according to the op-ed writer? Why, staying at home and reflecting on the past and your forbears. Sounds fun -- I'm sure that would have been an easy transition to make. If you want one of those holidays, fine; but pick a day that's free of existing fun holidays, or try to convert an existing serious holiday.
Of course, we have succeeded in taking back Halloween from young people, but at what price? It's not as though adult ownership automatically makes the thing serious, as most adults have little interest in souring the fun associated with things they themselves enjoy. So the result is to maintain the "childishness" of the holiday, but to make adults rather than children look childish. Which sight is more pathetic? -- kids dressed up or adults dressed up? (There's no debate that we'd like to see adolescents dressed up.)
We see this trend in all sorts of other things that used to belong to children and some teenagers. Video games are an obvious example. The typical video game player (I will never use the lame term "gamer") used to be a male under the age of majority. Now the average age is early-mid 30s. And video games are no less childish now than during the Nintendo era -- they may have more "mature content," like getting into the persona of a mass murderer, but that hardly makes the player more grown-up. As with Halloween costumes, we've only succeeded in making adults rather than children look childish.
And the same goes for comedy movies, a trend that Steve Sailer recently commented on here. There may be a Hispanic demographic angle to this shift, but a larger one is again the ownership of this activity by people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s rather than teenagers or college students. Goofball or gross-out comedies marketed toward young people are pretty funny, and that's how they used to be in the 1980s and, if more weakly, in the 1990s. (The 15 - 24 age group, as a fraction of the population, peaked in the early 1980s.) Now they're geared more toward the same group that plays video games and spends lots of time putting together their Halloween costume -- at least in their late 20s, and mostly in their 30s or even 40s.
As with video games and costumes, these types of comedies need to be watered down because the target audience isn't that juvenile. Usually this is done by heaping humorless "irony" onto the product to make it look like it's made for adults, in the same way that making a candy bar with almonds and goji berries assuages the 30-something's sense of guilt for pigging out on sugar. Predictably, these grown-up junk bars -- laughably marketed as health foods -- are not nearly as pleasing to the tongue as a simple Caramelo or Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.
Why has this transfer of ownership from children to adults completely failed to lower the level of childishness? (Of course, that's not such a big problem if it's only kids who are engaging in the activity -- there needs to be some level of childishness in the world, but just confined to what kids do.) The answer is that if adults are merely trying to steal something fun from children, they have no incentive to transform the activity into something that looks grown-up, responsible, and so on. If adults' motivation were to show children how to engage in the activity responsibly -- say, having a single glass of wine at dinner -- then we would see them behaving like adults. But when the big person is merely stealing the little person's toy -- after all, "that stuff isn't for kids" -- then we'll see adults indulging more in childish activities.
For all the benefits associated with longer lifespans in modern countries, there is this downside -- that as adults live longer and healthier lives, they'll want to keep those lives as fun-filled as possible. Why bow out gracefully at age 35 or 40 if you can still live it up childishly well into your 60s like the Baby Boomers are? This naturally makes old people more bitterly envious of young people than before -- "why should they have all the fun"? -- whereas before the two age groups would not have been seeking the same goals in the first place. When desires are different, envy is impossible.
Now, for example, the fact that a 20 year-old girl can look beautiful so effortlessly only serves to anger the 30-something who sees herself as still in the game, whose counterpart many generations ago would have already settled into family life.
Yet just because older people are healthier than before doesn't mean that their state relative to young people has changed -- 20 year-olds will always look better than 30 year-olds, and video games marketed to little boys and teenagers will always be more fun than those marketed to the middle-aged. Older people can look better today than the old people of centuries before, but they have to work harder at it. In the same way, they can have more fun on Halloween than the old people of yesteryear, but they still have to work pretty hard at it. In expending this effort to stay young, they immediately notice that there's a huge group of people who don't have to toil at all to enjoy youthful fun -- the young.
And when the powerful become envious of the powerless, we know what's going to happen to the source of fun among the lower-status group: it's going to get stolen. The corrosive envy that the wicked stepmother had of Snow White has been a constant throughout human existence, but it is much more intense now that longer lifespans encourage old people to still compete on the same terms as young people, without realizing how pathetic they look in general.
Sure, there is the one-in-a-million specimen who can still look great into their 30s, or who can have as much carefree fun as kids do on Halloween, but the remaining 999,999 out of the million become the ugly old guy in the club, the video game addict whose hobby is more about collecting and going through the motions of completing a game, or the movie "buff" who passes over the DVD of Fast Times at Ridgemont High in favor of Superbad.