Rise of the kidults - how the sale of toys to adults is booming
Sales of children's toys to adults are booming. Our reporter speaks to the people embracing their inner child in a time of all work and no play
Several weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation with my wife. She wondered why I, a self-employed father of three, had just spent several hundred euro on… a board game. The short answer was that the game in question was really, really cool. Actually, that was the long answer too. Suffice to say my powers of persuasion were a little wanting.
The only consolation is that I am not alone. Toys and games are no longer strictly for kids. A survey in the UK earlier this month found that almost one in five children's building sets and action figures are bought by adults for their own use.
According to the research, adults without children spend more on shiny plastic playthings than those with a family (and, as I can attest, those of us in the latter category are no slouches either). We are living in the age of the 'kidult'.
There are many flavours of kidult, from the model railway enthusiast pottering in the shed to the My Little Pony 'Brony' organising a meet-up online. Some appear to be in a hurry to bankrupt themselves, such as the Star Wars fan splurging €2,500 on a Lego Star Destroyer.
"When people hear I have a lot of dolls they sometimes get the wrong end of the stick," says Glenda Taylor, from Riverstown, Co Sligo, who has more than 600 mostly mint-condition Barbies in her attic. "They think 'What, you play with dolls?' It's only when they hear how many I have that they understand I'm a collector."
The rise of the kidult is undoubtedly linked to the pressures of modern living. We spend our waking hours juggling professional and personal responsibilities. Is it any surprise that, after a hard day walking multiple tight-ropes at once, we should seek to unwind by connecting with our inner child? In a world that feels as if it is all work and no play, toys are a reminder of simpler times.
"The trend for people aged 18 plus buying toys for themselves is possibly a reaction against the stresses of our fast-paced lives," said Frederique Tutt of NDP Group, the market researchers behind the new study. "Toys are fun - and when you are having fun any stress you might be feeling goes away. It makes perfect sense."
The rise of fan culture is an additional factor. Thirty years ago, a person declaring themselves a hardcore Star Wars devotee would have been rewarded with baffled shrugs. Today, the Force is very much with fully-grown nerds.
"Star Wars and Lego are real favourites for the more mature toy buyer," said Tutt. "Both these brands have spanned several decades and have been successful at reinventing themselves, most recently with films, including Star Wars Episode VII, which can evoke a feeling of nostalgia among the more mature fan base."
"There is a huge community in Ireland for collecting comics, action figures, statues and life-size props and, with the popularity of shows such as Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, it's getting bigger," says Jason Flood of Dublin City Comics and Collectibles. "Figures come in all sizes and prices and they can be based on movie, TV, comic or video game characters."
Kidulthood typically strikes out of the blue. A person may stumble upon a toy that sweeps them back to their childhood and decide they have to have it. One spontaneous purchase leads to another - suddenly the spare room is groaning with He-Man figurines or Scalextric racers.
"I was at a vintage show several years ago and saw a toy car I used to have as a child," says Martin Bolger, who has more than 20,000 model cars arranged across several rooms of his home in Kingscourt, Co Cavan. "It went on from there. I would go to toy and vintage shows and add to the collection. It is at the stage where I have nearly every type. I collect everything."
It's tempting to roll your eyes but toys can become an addiction, with serious consequences for your bank balance. When the manufacturers of the Kingdom Death: Monster boardgame ran a crowd-funding campaign for a reprint and a series of expansions in January, over $12m was raised, with an average pledge in excess of $600 (I, reader, was among them, and though I didn't go quite so far, I had some explaining to do to my thoroughly non-geeky better half).
"I've often compared toy collecting to being a heroin addict á la Trainspotting, and not just because there was a certain time in my life when I would have crawled through a filthy Scottish toilet to get a Star Wars Ree-Yees figure," Rob Bricken wrote on the science fiction and fantasy blog io9. "It's because toy collecting is a compulsion that ignores sanity, common sense and reality alike. The reasons I shouldn't be collecting toys are myriad."
"Collecting shouldn't be a competition. It should be fun," says Jason. "It doesn't matter if you have five or 500 of a thing, as long as you enjoy it. There's the thrill of the hunt - of finding a toy or a comic you have been searching for or just finding an obscure bargain in a shop somewhere. Access to the internet and being able to contact sellers all over the world has made tracking down items a lot easier. It all comes down to how much you want to pay.
"I know some people who quit drugs or drink and focus on comics and toys," he continues. "It could be argued that they swapped one addiction for another but collecting toys is a bit healthier. Also, with toys you can sell them on at a later stage if you want to."
"I have no idea how much my collection is worth," adds Glenda. "It's unlikely I would ever want to sell the dolls. I'm getting married soon. My dream house would have space for all the Barbies, as they are in the attic at the moment."
Of course, adults aren't simply collecting toys. They are playing with them too. Whether it be a Scalextric kit received as a non-ironic 25th birthday present or a burgeoning Subbuteo habit, there is evidence that millennials - who account for 50pc of the grown up toy market - have, in particular, gone the 'full kidult'.
And with the market expanding at three times the rate of the one for children, it's clear that ever greater numbers are embracing their inner child. In an increasingly stressful world, the freedom offered by play has never been more important.