'I know grown women who bring teddies to work with them' - Irish psychotherapist on Generation Juvenile
Glittering accessories, colouring books, onesies and all things unicorn are in demand as gifts this Christmas - for adults. Here, our reporter asks whether it's harmless, nostalgic fun, or the coping mechanism of a generation that is too scared to grow up...
Do you love unicorns and mermaids? Have you got an adult colouring book stowed inside your handbag? Are you over the age of 13? If you've answered yes to the above questions, then it's fairy safe to assume that you've joined the ranks of the so-called 'kidults'.
Kidults, as they are known to marketeers, are on the rise. These twenty- and thirty-somethings have pledged their allegiance to mythical flying creatures, mono-finned sea princesses and, indeed, anything that helps them embrace their inner child.
Just a few weeks ago, while shopping for a unicorn lunchbox for my daughter, I encountered a woman buying the very same design. "These are so cute," smiled the sales assistant. "Your daughter will love it." "Oh, I don't have any children," piped the woman confidently. "It's for me." She was probably in her early thirties. My daughter is six.
Meanwhile, Instagram feeds are flooded with adult users showing off their rainbow hair, body glitter and unicorn nail decals, and 'age-appropriate' doesn't seem to be in the unicorn enthusiast's vocabulary.
Last month, TV presenter Holly Willoughby (36) dressed up as a unicorn for a special Halloween edition of This Morning. "This is the best day of my life!" she cried.
She may have been inspired by Miley Cyrus, who took comfortable airplane attire to the next level when she was spotted wearing a sky-blue unicorn onesie - and carrying an oversized seahorse teddy - at Sydney airport in 2014.
Look a little further and you'll discover a veritable 'hornucopia' of unicorn paraphernalia: bags, wallpaper, sweatshirts, water bottles, mugs... and that's just the mainstream products. The elite fashion world has jumped on the proverbial unicorn's back too - Valentino's launch of unicorn-inspired jewellery and footwear was an instant sell-out.
Hell, even food companies have embraced unicorn mania. In April, Starbucks in the US launched their Unicorn Frappacino - a sort of slush puppy of pinks and purples. It created near hysteria with customers queuing around the block to get their rainbow sugar fix.
And it's not just unicorns. Montreal has its very own Aqua Mermaid Academy where anyone between seven and 70 can practice being a mermaid; there's even a 'Merfest' - for like-minded Merpeople (don't laugh).
More recently, witnesses reported commotion in Penneys stores when the chain released a limited number of Disney's Beauty and the Beast Chip cups. The must-have item sparked a frenzy, with one Disney-obsessive dubbing the craze 'Chip Gate'.
Adult colouring books have also created unprecedented demand. When illustrator Johanna Basford published her first one back in 2013, she had no idea she was about to spark a craze so addictive it would cause global pencil shortages.
It's hard to hide from the fact that we are infantalising ourselves. Unicorns, mermaids, Harry Potter books (which, like Weekend, celebrate 20 years this year) that we secretly hide inside grown-up tomes on the Dart, children's movies we love; these creatures and characters have become our mascots, symbols of a generation struggling to grow up, a generation that wants to exist in a state of perpetual childhood or adolescence.
Psychotherapist Lynn Agnew of Dublin Counsellors is very familiar with the phenomenon. "I have a lot of clients in their 20s and 30s who behave this way. Grown women who still collect Hello Kitty paraphernalia, watch Disney movies, and some who bring teddies to work with them. I think it's a sort of safety net. That age group has difficulty making the transition from being 'looked after' to growing up and taking responsibility. They have to step into the big bad world and that can be scary sometimes."
The current climate, where culture and politics seem bleak and oppressive, might well explain the need for this escapism. Brand strategist Jess Weiner believes we're in need of fantastical magic in our lives right now. "We're being faced with some dire messaging around being female. Unicorns, in particular, are rare, powerful and imaginary, so capable of anything. Why wouldn't we want to own something that's just for us and inspires us to believe in our otherworldly capabilities?"
But isn't it just part of a larger issue, a sort of Peter Pan syndrome, where growing up is identified with abandonment of the dreams of adventure?
With adulthood comes responsibility and resignation that things won't necessarily be as happy as our childhoods. "There is a huge negative connotation to getting a job among many of the millennial generation that I've met," says Agnew. "Where once it was a positive thing, it's become a burden with many. There's no more excuses, no summer holidays, no lie-ins. It's sink or swim time and for many, that's difficult to accept."
Agnew goes further to explain the disillusionment she sees among clients. "The very first thing I encourage my clients to do is halve their time on social media. We are overexposed to negative things in the world all the time and this feeds this need to retreat to a sort of fantasy world where we don't have to grow up and face ourselves or life's challenges."
It's a sort of 'quarterlife' crisis, a term coined by Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner - two women in their 20s - who wrote a book of the same name.
The authors describe the anxieties of a generation of twenty-somethings who are stuck in a cycle of intense self-doubt.
Where midlife crises are triggered by too much security, stability and predictability, quarterlife crises are the opposite: no stability, no predictability, no certainty. As a result, we are "suffocated by choice, responsibility and self-doubt".
Sociologist Frank Furedi, a professor at the University of Kent, who has been studying the 'Peter Pan' phenomenon, observes that "society is full of lost boys and girls hanging out at the edge of adulthood". He notes that the most striking confirmation of the process of infantalisation is the growing trend for young women and men to remain living at home well into their 30s.
He writes that "childishness is idealised for the simple reason that we despair at the thought of living the alternative". This is reinforced by the media and toy industry that cultivate nostalgia for the 'best days of our lives': our childhood.
Still, however juvenile or kitsch these trends seem to be, is there anything inherently wrong with them? Is there anything wrong with deliberately seeking out symbols of hope and happiness to offset how we're feeling as a culture or as individuals?
"I think it's fairly harmless," notes Agnew. "If watching Disney movies or bringing a unicorn pen to work brings you comfort, then why not? It's when it starts to overtake your day-to-day reality that it becomes dangerous. It's important to keep a balance in life, between things that bring you joy and comfort, taking responsibility and living in reality."
Nothing wrong with a small dose of magic in an otherwise gloomy world. Small. Dose. A unicorn mug? Fine. A teddy bear on your bed? Well, OK. But please, as a self-respecting adult, step away from the mermaid fin; you've now entered Neverland.