Forever Young

Man vs. man-baby

"Five years ago in Chicago, it would be the middle of spring and anyone over the age of 35 would be in oxfords and Dockers as part of their uniform," says Eric Crane, Ocean Pacific's vice president of marketing. "But now you're seeing Quiksilver T-shirts or OP board shorts on adults who previously wouldn't have been caught dead wearing that."

Unlike Abercrombie, which began life as a floundering WASP-wear boutique, companies like Crane's OP have a nobler claim to the man-baby market. They aren't chasing a childhood that never belonged to them—they're doing what they've always done. (Crane says he's met 60-year-old lifeguards who proudly show off their 35-year-old OP shirts.) This gives them a new chance for corporate longevity with customers who have grown up with—but not out of—OP. Ages 15-24 are their meatiest demographic, but the next most prominent set of OP buyers is 35 and aging—the people who Crane says have been walking in the same steps since the '70s.

"These aren't boomers—these are the kids of the hippies. Today's adults are people who watched Fast Times at Ridgemont High when they were kids," he says. "Imagine Spicoli as a style role model. That mindset doesn't necessarily change as responsibilities do, and as the workplace grows younger and younger—not necessarily in age, but as a new generation takes over—it comes to form a completely different shape."

But then imagine Spicoli as a role model, period: Spicoli cutting your paycheck, Spicoli piloting your passenger jet, Spicoli teaching your kids for six hours a day. This is the measure of the man-baby. Crane calls it the "forever young" thing—one of the most popular parts of the California mystique. It's part of the reason the casual sportswear look crossed over into mainstream fashion—the idea that aging can be optional. But the difference between a man in flip-flops and a man-baby in flip-flops is that the man is opting back into a childhood he misses—and the man-baby never opted out.

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Christopher Noxon fits interviews between the World Rock Paper Scissors championship in Las Vegas and an all-adult kickball game in Virginia. He's in the middle of his own book on man-babies—Rejuvenile, due in June—which he started a few years after the birth of his first child, when he caught himself enjoying father-son Popsicle breaks, tandem naptimes and cartoon marathons more than he ever thought he would.

"I got really interested in adults cultivating a childlike part of themselves through clothes or leisure, and I found it went a lot deeper than I thought," he says. "Informed decisions we made about how we parent, how long we live at home, when we get married—the way we live our lives has now changed a lot, and it's related to the way we think of ourselves as adults."

Noxon calls them "rejuveniles"; his definition is anyone with a pace or mindset traditionally associated with someone younger than themselves—a much broader and gentler term than "man-baby" that includes retired federal judges who run Disney fan clubs, Midwestern mothers dedicated to American Girl dolls, and teenagers cultivating an affection for Care Bears and unicorns. But what Noxon found still aligns with almost 25 years of diffuse social research into the idea of—to use Noxon's term—a deeper rejuvenilization of the American adult.

In 1979, historian Christopher Lasch proposed a culture of narcissism, a post-traditional reversal of values that would cede all advantages to the most narcissistic personalities—those adults best displaying a supercharged adolescent mix of ambition and neediness, solipsism and envy, and selfishness and dependence. A Me Generation without the name, basically. And as the '80s clunked on, rising crime, a rattled family unit and a mass media with unprecedented presence made contemporary teenagers—Crane's children of the hippies—into what sociologist and author James Cote called "the first generation who were less healthy, less well-cared for, and less prepared for life than their parents."

Between that generation and the teenagers of today are Noxon's rejuveniles and our man-babies: the adults who made sure video games brought in more revenue than movies in 2001, who (according to Nielsen) watch the Cartoon Network in greater numbers than CNN. The Entertainment Software Association reported that the average age of video-game players rose from 18 in 1990 to 29 in 2003, suggesting that many people have spent 14 years still playing video games.

"If you look at documentaries about baseball in the '50s, they pan into the crowd and everybody is wearing suits and hats!" laughs Noxon. "Age norms are now almost entirely broken down. Boomers had a lot to do with it, and [Generation] X-ers had a lot more to do with it, and on the pernicious side, the lavish attention the media puts on what they call the 'sweet spot'—that 18-34 demographic—that special treatment draws people back to that target market. When you fall out, you feel the only way not to be forgotten is by embracing those things that kids like. That's scary to me."

But that's business as usual too: Noxon admits he's wearing the same style of Converse he's been wearing since elementary school, which by age 38 makes for a lot of purchases from Converse. The rejuveniles he remembers from earlier eras seem to display a particularly active nostalgia for childhood—Noxon mentions the turn-of-the-century Americans who introduced comic books and theme parks, or Jazz Age designers who transformed baby-doll dresses into flapper slips. But man-babies tend to repeat, not re-invent—the tastes they developed in the troubled teen years Cote describes are something they preserve, not something they adapt. That's the kind of customer a company would love to have. What would a rejuvenile wear, I ask Noxon?

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