IN our world of endless playtime, we’ve grown old without growing up. I don’t want to grow up. I don’t want to be a man. I want always to be a little boy and to have fun.» So said Peter Pan, as he set off for Neverland in J. M. Barrie’s immortal fairytale. But were Peter Pan alive today, he wouldn’t have to fly away anywhere. He could be as boyish as he liked, for as long as he liked. His playfulness would moreover be seen as good even essential for the economy.
The signs are everywhere that childishness is more popular than ever. Look around. Adults read Harry Potter, rapt like children. Cartoon characters, pirates, superheroes and sequels dominate movie screens. Women dress like teenagers. Men lose days playing with their Wii. On Facebook we ask others to be our friends, we «poke» them and scrawl on «walls». The website of the moment is like one gigantic school playground. Why grow up when there’s so much fun to be had? Why grow up when the world feels terrifying and unfathomable, when escapism is as warm and comforting as buttery toast? Why grow up when history’s grand narratives (Christianity, communism, etc) have largely been replaced by a faith in capitalism? St Paul exhorted us to put away childish things, but St Paul didn’t know that one day childish things would drive the economy. Growing up is now a lifestyle choice.
In his new book Consumed, American political commentator Benjamin Barber argues that there is an «infantilising ethos» at the heart of consumer capitalism. With our essential needs in the West met, capitalism must invent wants and make them feel like needs. This is hardly a new idea, of course. Marx wrote of «imaginary needs» and another great mind, Stephen King, of «needful things», by which he meant rare baseball cards and framed pictures of Elvis.
The obsession with youth and the fear of adulthood that began in the 1960s is now standard, handed down to each generation like the electric guitar. Next to scary adulthood, Nederland seems like the place to be, and stay. But there’s a crocodile there that has swallowed a ticking dock and time is chasing after all of us.
Simon Castles is a Melbourne writer.