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.
* * *
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.
"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.
* * *
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?
"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."
* * *
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."
* * *
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.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.