August 31, 2003

· Gender · Sociology

In Newspaper Land, Summer is the season of fake lifestyle trends. There’s nothing like a bit of pop sociology to fill the feature pages on those long, hot days. The New York Times has been doing quite well on this front recently. A couple of months ago it was telling us about metrosexuals, the allegedly new breed of straight male who uses Neutrogena products and so on. They also had a story about the rise of the thirtieth birthday party. Today we read about rejuveniles, who are grown-ups with “busy lives with adult responsibilities, respectable jobs and children of their own” but who nevertheless like to play with children’s toys, sing children’s songs and generally make well-functioning adults and children alike feel rather uncomfortable. Here’s the pitch:

From childless fans of kiddie music to the grown-up readers of “Harry Potter,” inner children are having fun all over. Whether they are buying cars marketed to consumers half their age, dressing in baby-doll fashions or bonding over games like Twister and kickball, a new breed of quasi adult is co-opting the culture of children as never before.

The article surveys the kind of consumption choices that these people are supposed to be making, and comes up a little confused. Sometimes it seems like garden-variety mid-life crisis behavior. The Honda Element is supposedly marketed at young buyers spending the weekend mountain biking or surfing, but the average age of Element drivers is 40. “It’s a new definition of the family buyer” says a Honda marketing guy, “someone who doesn’t want to give up their individual character even though they’re getting older.” (Translation: Doesn’t want to admit they’re getting older.) Similarly, whereas signing on to “makes you feel 16 again,” there’s not much new in it: the class reunion is a standard part of American culture and has been so for years. And reading Harry Potter never hurt anyone. Well, nearly anyone.

Buying cars to feel younger, feeling nostalgic for high-school, reading popular children’s literature. So far so blah. The article even uses the phrase “inner child” with a straight face, which is so 1985. On the other hand, I’m less sure what to make of someone described as “an authority on music by Alvin and the Chipmunks.”

“I like Chipmunks records because they’re funny, period,” said Jacob Austen, 34 … While friends and family have come to regard his love of old kids’ records as charming or sweet, children are less forgiving. “I get the most censure from little kids, definitely,” he said. “I’ll be playing a Chipmunk record in my car, and if a kid hears it, they get seriously weirded out.”

That’s because parents teach their children to run away from people like you, pal. A couple of the people in the article do seem poised at the top of the slippery slope that leads to people like this guy or this sort of thing or, well, sometimes it’s best not to find out more. Suffice to say that everyone should be a little wary of practices that put you at the very bottom even of the geek hierarchy.

Since reading the article I’ve been thinking up names for fictitious lifestyles that would suit an article like this. Between metrosexual and rejuvenile it’s clear that a snappy name is a must for any aspiring imaginary lifestyle. Possibilities so far include

Beautilitarians: “It has become so hard to find Mr or Ms Right these days that many young urban professionals, constantly juggling other demands, have simply given up and decided to take the first half-decent looking candidate who presents themselves. ‘You just can’t put the effort in anymore,’ said Valerie Bentham from her SoHo loft, ‘So you make a beautilitarian trade off—some people think it’s just too calculating, but I say everyone’s happier overall.’”

Neocondominiums: “In response to the constant search for desirable roommates and attractive living spaces, a new trend in semi-suburban living has emerged—the neocondominium. Westchester realtor Kristol Irving says the arrangement is ‘hopeful, not lugubrious; forward-looking, not nostalgic’. You borrow money to pay the rent and, in virtue of your apartment’s ‘incredible military superiority’ over everyone else in the building you and your housemates have considerable freedom to use other units, though maintenance fees often prove higher than anticipated.. A reality TV show, set in one of the first Neocondominiums, is planned for the Fall.”

Sindergarten: “In a natural extension of the rejuvenile trend, some firms have begun to …” [fill in the rest yourself].

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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