Monday 22 January 2018

Rise of the kidults

They are still skateboarding in their 40s, live at home and queue up at a cereal cafe. A look at a generation that doesn't want to grow up

Ben Still and Naomi Watts in While We're Still Young
Ben Still and Naomi Watts in While We're Still Young

Tanya Sweeney

Time once was that once a person hit the age of 40 or 50, they surrendered to a number of, well, more age-appropriate behaviours. Football fandom, the Fender guitar collection or the punk gigs were consigned to the proverbial scrapheap of one's life, hopefully to be resurrected when the offspring were old enough. But no more. Welcome instead to the advent of the 'kidult'... or the rise and rise of the 'adultescent'.

Proof positive that the warm and fuzzy cocoon of childhood nostalgia is proving big business. London's first adult ball pool - at the Pearlfisher design agency in Hammersmith - opened in January amid a hum of curiosity. Word began to spread, and suddenly grown adults were queuing to play in a room filled with 81,000 balls.

Belfast-born brothers Gary and Alan Keery are providing a similarly comforting experience in London. Noting that adults with disposable income are only too happy to pay over the odds for a spoonful of their childhood, the brothers opened Cereal Killer Café.

And where London blazes a trail, we're sure to follow. Rumours abound that a similar cereal-themed cafe is bound for the Irish capital. Elsewhere, Andrew McMenamin has opened Simply Crispy, a crisp sandwich shop in Belfast, while Tayto's crisp sandwich pop-up opened earlier this month.

These days, the generation gap appears to have been all but erased. With their behaviours becoming ever more similar, adults from 25 to 48 have become one homogenous mass, with one barely distinguishable from the other. They all have Twitter, listen to indie bands and binge-watch Netflix.

Where once 'Peter Pan Syndrome' was a vaguely derisive label to lobby at someone, now it's a badge of honour; a sign of vitality, relevance and vim. Margaret Thatcher famously intoned that a man who, beyond the age of 26 finds himself on a bus, can count himself as a failure. What she'd have to say about grown men on skateboards is anyone's guess.

The difficulties of grappling with middle age are captured in the new film, While We're Young, starring Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts. The pair play a 40-something couple who befriend a spirited couple in their 20s.

Now in his 40s, Eason book-buyer David O'Callaghan is proud of his 'nerd' status. By his own admission, his day-to-day life hasn't changed much from his student years. Those who have stepped inside his Stoneybatter home know it as a pop-culture paradise packed to the rafters with figurines and film paraphernalia.

"If the house was burning down, the three things I'd save would be a Radiohead setlist that Thom Yorke gave me at the Olympia show, a ticket from the Serenity première in London that Joss Whedon and Nathan Fillion signed for me as a thank you for refereeing their dance-off, and my framed Empire Strikes Back painting," he says.

"Anyone who doesn't know me might walk into the house and be like, 'woah, what a loser', but I don't care. I love to buy beautiful things. If I can't buy this stuff, what's the point in working and getting paid? What am I saving for?"

Though he has savings, medical insurance and a pension, O'Callaghan doesn't own the Stoneybatter Batcave: "I'm in a New York state of mind," he reasons. "If I rent, I can escape relatively easy."

According to Colin Coulter, a sociology lecturer at NUI Maynooth, several factors have birthed Generation Kidult. Chief among them is social networking and digital technology. "Because of this, you'll find relatively young people liking the same music as their parents," he explains.

"There was once a rigid distinction between parents and children, but that boundary has collapsed, or at least blurred. My pet theory is that what this reflects at its heart is a real deep shift in the nature of capitalism. Once upon a time, the rhythms of daily life were those of hard work and not having a great deal of money. In the 90s and 2000s, the model was based more on an economy of play, of self-indulgence."

Much has already been said about the slings and arrows of Ireland's economic climate, and there's little point in retelling it here. Yet thanks to this unfortunate series of recent circumstances, few people in their 30s or 40s are where they thought they might be in life by now; nowhere near, in fact.

That financial security promised at the outset of adulthood? A complete myth. The opportunity to take our foot off the brake and enjoy a career on cruise control? Likewise, a fanciful fabrication.

For most of us, the trappings of full-blown adulthood - property, savings, pensions - remain just always beyond reach.

But has the recent economic climate prompted us to put two fingers up to a more 'traditional' model of adult life? Are we prone to thinking, 'where did being responsible ever get us?' When times are tough and things uncertain in the world, is acting like a kid a safer bet? "I'm not sure it's an active rebelling against the system, but people are fearful of making decisions because of what happened," says financial advisor Bob Quinn.

"Yet there comes a point in everyone's life when you should be willing to take on a certain amount of responsibility, but I think there are an awful lot of people who are blissfully, wilfully ignorant of what fiscal responsibility means."

So when does this cuddly infantilising of adults become something more sinister? In his Kildare practice, Quinn has noted a sharp increase in adults moving back to the family home. Approximately 23pc of Irish adults aged 25 to 34 still live with their parents, according to Eurostat.

Almost 440,000 aged 18 or over now live at their parental home, according to the latest census. While 138,000 of those were students, 90,000 were in their 30s and 40s.

"You see a few different scenarios where an adult bought a house back in 2005, and they went into arrears and couldn't afford to keep the house up and running," Quinn explains.

Adds Coulter: "Certain rites of passage into adulthood are beyond people's reach. This is not a culture that prepares people for life's disappointment."

As to whether the advent of Generation Kidult is a good or bad thing, Coulter is ambivalent.

"I think it's a bit of both," surmises Coulter. "It's a bad thing in that people are often forced to live in ways they wouldn't otherwise choose to. It's great to share a house at 25, not so great at 35, but insupportable at 45.

"But it's great that you can be in your 40s and 50s and unabashedly love pop music. For my father's generation, the vinyl collections were put away up the attic. People no longer 'stop' enjoying themselves when they're 35 and have kids."

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