Forever Young

Man vs. man-baby

"Clothes you can ideally wear to work and play as well," he says. "It's about comfort, whimsy, demonstrating to the world right off the bat that there's more going on with you than just business as usual. I guess there is a uniform—it's pretty predictable. T-shirts are a great example. All the brands from the '80s and '90s are still around. The loyalty to the branding of our youth—at times—is pretty ridiculous."

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Back at South Coast Plaza, another man-baby and his baby-baby were examining the directory map. Both wore blank baseball jerseys and jeans—if the baby hadn't been in a stroller, they could have just come from a game—and clean new sneakers, and the dad had a baseball cap twisted backward on his head. They put their backs to a bookstore and rolled sedately toward the carousel. This was a moment to consider a different side of the man-babies, who had abandoned more than just the old fashions of traditional adulthood. In the middle of a weekday, they were out shopping with their children. And if there were women with them, it was still the man-baby who held his child's hand and guided the stroller. These were very obvious and tender parents—something their own parents may never have been. That traditional fedora-wearing dad and long-suffering caretaker mom, says Noxon, didn't do us any favors.

"On Easter morning, I took my kid to the skatepark," says Crane, "and the only other people there were another dad and his kid. That stereotypical family of the '50s—the dad in the office and the kid up to no good—that only bred distance. I think it's healthier now, to be honest. A father and son who share stylistic similarities can only be closer on the inside too."

Research on the character of adulthood exists on a lateral plane—examining how one kind of adult compares to another. But how does a new kind of adulthood affect the children of new adults? Cote details how poverty in the '80s changed to trail family makeup instead of economic background, reflecting a wave of new single-parent families. The single man-baby family, however, is still obscure. It may indicate a new and considered coherence—a child-centered structure with a father who is less a provider and a model but more of a friend. Writer Abby Wilner, who tracks trends in adolescent-adult transition, says this is a natural action by adults unwilling to pass the experiences of their own troubled teenhood on to their children: "In large part, it's due to the circumstances surrounding the way we were brought up," she explains. "We're cautious." That makes other adults uncomfortable—Cote's book grimly suggests an adultolescent drone-labor class developing by 2100—but it might make children very happy.

"There are parenting experts who would tell you we're the worst parents in generations because we lost our authority," says Noxon. "I think that's hogwash. Parents who can share culture with their kids enhance that relationship because the parents and children like each other more. That divide is broken down. I'm delighted—now there isn't stuff that's so saccharine and dumbed-down it leaves me out. I can watch the same Pixar movie with my kid and totally dig it. The same can be said in music and fashion. The blurring of age lines is nothing but good."

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By now, the man-baby and his baby-baby had rolled through an intersection in the mall where several casual sportswear stores faced each other—places where anyone could buy a set of flip-flops or a T-shirt with a lot of ink on it. Inside one store were two salesgirls, waiting to smile at customers. I asked them if the difference between kid's fashion and adult fashion was disappearing.

"It's true," said one, "and I don't like it! I don't like to see a grown adult shopping in the kids section!"

They'd worked at the mall for years and seen every trend splatter in front of them: trophy wives slithering into size-1 miniskirts, toddlers squished into hundred-dollar toddler jeans, women desperately asking for a set of flip-flops because a day shopping on heels pinched all the blood out of their feet. Each girl clerk was under 21, which would make her spawn of the first post-man-baby generation: the children of the children of the hippies, with maybe another generation filed in between. Had they ever taken their fathers shopping? One girl had persuaded hers into a casual printed sportswear T-shirt: "And he's 50!" she said. And the other hadn't. Her dad was very laid-back, she emphasized, but he still left politely without buying anything. The T-shirts were a little loud, he thought. She seemed proud of him, which was understandable. He was probably one of the last old men left.

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