November 2, 2009

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.


  1. wealth makes people childish

  2. very insightful thoughts agnostic....

    I suppose as more people are single in their 30's, those same people will work to keep their "replication value" as high as possible, which will be fomented in the form of striving to stay young past the time that they are young. Cougars and "old guys at the bar"******

    ****** I used to, circa 1992 or thereabouts, go to a particular country line dance club in my city (girls are friendly in those venues because line dancing/Texas two-stepping with someone there doesn't mean nearly as much socio-sexually as grinding with someone signals in other contemporary dance clubs). There used to be a quite good-looking man in his late 40's or early 50's who hung out there, always hitting on the hot-younger women. He had a very full head of greying hair, and chisled features, and a lean body of medium height. He looked like he pumped some iron. In his prime, he'd probably be about the best-looking dude there, but his prime was 25 years earlier. The rumor was that his name was "Kendall" and he was a dealer. Dont know if that was true though. There was something pitiful about it. At a "older" bar, he'd probably be the hot guy, but of course he felt he could still pull the hotter, younger chicks. He probably should have been focusing on women in their late 30's at another bar, but he was still working the late 20's and early 30's gals pretty hard. Im sure he heard some snickers in his time. He was the only grey-headed guy there, and the median age at that place was probably about 23 years of age at the time. Its a mexican-bar now, as that part of town has been "cedeed" by whites.

  3. As I was leaving the gym last night, before I read this piece, some thoughts about being out of place due to age occurred to me. It's not that I'm old or decrepit. Far from it. But I am part of the over-35 contingent, and in this particular gym in the evenings that's basically superannuated. Most other patrons are in the 18-25 age range. I'm basically invisible to them, with people I've seen several evenings a week for months or years not even recognizing my presence. The only other people with whom I ever exchange any pleasantries are fellow members of the over-35 club.

    And this is in a fitness facility. Surely, the invisibility of the "old" must be far worse in a bar or nightclub.


  4. I don't do the Halloween dressup thing myself but my wife does accompany the kids when they trick or treat (you'd be nuts to allow young children to walk around urban neighborhoods without supervision - heck, you can't even send them to the local park in broad daylight, there's always some vagrant/wino lurking).

  5. I think part of it is the aging demographic. I know what you are talking about though. Looking through facebook after Halloween I was kind of disturbed by the Halloween party pictures and I'm glad I didn't take part in it. 29+ year old unfit, ex-smokers don't look good as scantily clad cops, bunnies, belly dancers etc.

  6. Don't be silly: it's relentless marketing, not "longer lifespans." Children are much better consumers than adults.

  7. You're touching on something that's just beginning to reach the scientific and psychological communities as well. Bruce C. Charlton wrote a seminal piece entitled "Psychological Neoteny and Higher Education" ( postulating that (and I'm paraphrasing) staying in education for 4 to 8 years after high school is delaying life events that lead to maturity, such as getting a job, house, wife, kids, etc. Aside from all the mention it got in the news, there have been many other articles dealing with the same subjects (remember Kay Hymowitz's "Child Man in the Promised Land?").

    It's easy to see that people these days are taking longer to grow up - if they do at all.

  8. C.S. Lewis once remarked that people who are concerned about being adults are still childish. Children are concerned about acting grown up. They understandably desire to mature, challenge themselves, and assert independence.

    When apparently grown men are overly concerned about proving how adult they are they're not really adults at all. They're still boys, trying to find the bigger stick. Actual adults, people who are seasoned and mature, can unselfconsciously be silly or serious, goofy or dignified, and can read comic books or so-called Literature.

    What I find a more curious question is how the changing landscape will alter what society considers being "adult". Because being "adult" is by many traditional standards, a dour, joyless, and alltogether priggish thing. Many conventional standards for "maturity" involve little more than big boys and girls dressing up in their own costumes: the suits, the dresses, the jewels, and the crowns of status, and having tea parties where they ruminate on how very serious business it all is.

    Life doesn't care how "adult" you act. It just is, following from a very simple but profound set of starting rules. Make me part of that glorious chaos and I am whatever I choose to be.

  9. Jerry Dawkins11/16/09, 1:12 PM

    Yeah, but, the flipside is to ask: what's awesome about being "mature" anyway?

    Not a lot really. We're living in a society where the "mature" people, those who we've been told to look up to and admire as leaders, elders, "wise men", etc. have revealed themselves to be morally and intellectually bankrupt. Just out for a land grab to claim everything they can and use up all the resources. They've left everyone younger than them to clean up their mess.

    Has it occurred to you that being mature has a stigma on it? That increasingly bitter old people who hate that progress and time give each successive generation new ideas and new ways of living don't do any favors to the transmission of their own values?

    I recall seeing Bill Mahr one time on his program, making an acidic, cruel mockery out of halloween. Not because of helicopter parents but because some adults go to costume parties too. How undignified, he said. Just what would he have adults do? Stand around being full of themselves while worshiping dead white culture figures? I suppose so.


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."