Forever Young

Man vs. man-baby

They looked so at home: a father and his son, hand in soft hand, floating through the wide aisles of South Coast Plaza. And they looked so at home with each other too: both in fat, marshmallow tennis shoes, floppy jeans tangling at their ankles, hoodies bunching at their shoulders and a long strip of T-shirt showing over their belts. The father wore some jewelry, a lumpy silver watch; otherwise, one was an exact duplicate of the other. A father and son might have matched this well 50 years ago, but they would have worn jackets and ties. This was a new kind of dad. He dressed down to his kids—or dressed the same way he had dressed since he was a kid—and maybe he liked video games and junk food and cartoons too. Although he was legally an adult, inside his head he was partly still a kid—more a kid than his father or grandfather ever could have been. He was grown, but maybe not grown up. He was what we will call a "man-baby."

By now there are several names for them, most more generous than "man-baby": "rejuvenile," also the title of an upcoming book by author Christopher Noxon, or "adultolescent," or "g'rup," a compression of "grown-up." They are men pushed by biology toward adulthood but held in an internal stasis; they age, but they do not develop so much as repeat. Man-babies have been nursing since the '70s, the era when certain social and cultural and economic patterns locked together in a new way. They are very comfortable now; they look and act the same as they have always looked and acted. In some ways, they never had a choice.

Adulthood doesn't come as clearly and naturally as it once did. A multimillion-dollar study by the MacArthur Foundation pushed the official start of adulthood from the traditional age of 21 to at least 26, with the caveat that it might not even kick in until the early 30s. That's because the markers that made the stern suit-and-tie fathers of the '50s men—marriage, a career, first-time home ownership—have been shoved by circumstance later and later in life; they demand more time and money than today's 21-year-olds can muster. The premise of adulthood has changed too. The collapse of the two-parent atomic family—and the relaxation of gender/race/class role definitions—offers confusion as much as freedom; anyone approaching adulthood now, says sociologist James Cote, finds that they have "fewer cultural restrictions on their choices than existed in the past, but they also have fewer cultural patterns to follow." And aligned with the economic and social factors that sabotage the transition to adulthood are corporations that have found a new market in the man-baby demographic: for them, it pays to delay. In the early 1980s, advertising trade magazines ran the statistics and discovered that tradition had finally fossilized; with that, the adult went out of fashion. The baby boomers were the last generation to grow up with the old models for adulthood. The future would belong to the man-babies, consumers who could fund a little boy's personality with a grown man's money. Right now would be a great time to be young. Even if you're old.

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Mike Jeffries is men's fashion's leading man-baby. In a troubling profile published in Salon in January, the Abercrombie & Fitch CEO explained why he bleaches his hair blond: "Dude, I'm not an old fart." But Jeffries is 61. In four years, he won't just be a legal old fart; he will be eligible for the accompanying discount. And since his position at Abercrombie seems secure, he will probably pass the traditional retirement age wearing what he wears now: flip-flops, a printed tee and a pre-weathered pair of jeans.

This is the most basic uniform of the man-baby—albeit one inflated during the past 50 years to fit a new respectability and waistline. The Smithsonian includes in its collection several of the first printed T-shirts, most dating to just after World War II. These are the ancestors of the graphic casual wear that companies like Abercrombie stamp out by the millions. All are in children's sizes because T-shirts then were something only children would wear without another shirt on top. By the time Jeffries came to Abercrombie in the '70s—a time when colleagues remember him in corduroys and oxfords—T-shirts had preceded him, achieving ubiquity with thousands of iron-ons advertising everything from Jaws to Farrah Fawcett. Jeans were normalized at about the same time, nudged from workwear to a casual staple; and now to almost universal appropriateness. And flip-flops? Last summer, the Northwestern University women's lacrosse team caused a minor scandal by wearing flip-flops to meet the president at the White House—but only a minor scandal. "Maybe this really speaks more to the worldwide acceptance of the flip-flop," wondered writer Meghan Cleary, described by the Chicago Tribune as a shoe expert. Maybe it also speaks to a generation so far removed from the stiff suit-and-tie decorum of their grandparents—great-grandparents?—that they'll be buried in what they wore to the beach.

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