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Justus Sustermans Portrait of Cosimo III de Medici as babyVia Wikimedia Commons

Everyone needs to grow up

Whether it’s people who mention their Hogwarts house on their Hinge profile or literal white supremacists, culture is awash with adult babies

We are a generation of adult babies. You can see it in the widely circulated – and largely untrue – idea that the human brain isn’t developed until the age of 25, which means that anyone younger is still essentially a child. It’s there in the notion that people with ADHD can’t text back their friends because they lack object permanence (a skill that babies develop at eight months old). It’s there in the narrative that, because gay people didn’t experience a normal childhood, they’re living out a second adolescence in their twenties and thirties. It’s there in the hegemony of superhero films and the cross-generational popularity of YA, whose fans insist that grown-up literature is only ever about depressed college professors having affairs.

You can see it in Disney adults; the rise of cuteness as a dominant aesthetic category; the resurgence of stuffed animals; people who identify as Hufflepuffs on their Hinge profile; people throwing tantrums when their Gorillas rider is five minutes late; people lip-syncing, with pouted lips and furrowed brows, to audio tracks of toddlers. Sometimes, it’s less about pretending to be a child and more about harking back to a lost adolescence: narrativising your life like it’s a John Green novel or an episode of Euphoria, bragging about crazzzy exploits like smoking cigarettes on a swing or doing cocaine on a Thursday; hitting 30 and still considering yourself “precocious”.

Most complaints about the infantilism of young people have typically come from the right, which has pointed to safe spaces and trigger warnings as evidence that Gen Z and millennials have been coddled to the point of softness. The right-wing critique of infantilism usually contends that, due to a vague decline in moral fibre, young people aren’t willing to embrace the mantles of adulthood, like moving out of the family home, entering into a stable career, getting married and starting a family.

For the most part, though, swerving these milestones is not an active choice that young people are making: adulthood is something that has been denied to many of us, who couldn’t buy a flat or start a family even if we wanted to. “In an age where so much agency has been taken away from young adults, when they face futures saddled with debt, unable to access the basic material trappings of adulthood, which in turn delays entry into emotional adulthood indefinitely, a retreat into the dubious comforts of a pseudo-childhood will have its pull,” Professor Josh Cohen, psycho-analyst and author of How to Live, What to Do, tells Dazed.

That said, even if the economy is foisting an extended adolescence on us, we can still choose to assert our dignity and refuse to become “baby adults” or 26-year-old teenagers, helpless and dependent. Make no mistake: the capitalist elites want you to think of yourself as a silly little goose. “From a psychoanalytic perspective, self-infantilisation makes uncannily good sense. It is a kind of identification with one’s own powerlessness, and so gives it a veneer of active choice,” says Cohen. “Freud pointed out that when small children play games, they are often re-enacting a traumatic situation with the aim of exerting control over it. I can’t bear it when mummy leaves, so if I throw this puppet on a string and pull it back, I’ll be in control of when she leaves and when she returns. I think self-infantilisation is a belated version of this. If as an adult I play at innocence, cuteness and delicacy, then I choose and assume some command over my feeling of helplessness.”

What would rejecting this helplessness look like? The right see adulthood as a process of settling down, getting married and having children; in effect, conforming to conventional gender roles and being productive members of the workforce. We obviously don’t have to buy into that, at any age. But we can aspire towards a different form of maturity: looking after ourselves, treating other people with care, being invested in something beyond our own immediate satisfaction. Infantilising yourself can often seem like a plea for diminished responsibility. Most of us will have encountered someone who, when criticised for behaving badly, appeals to their own vulnerability as a way of letting themselves off the hook. No matter what they do or the harm they cause, it’s never fair to criticise them, because there’s always some reason – often framed through therapy jargon or the language of social justice – why it isn’t their fault. Childishness grants them a perpetual innocence; they are constitutionally incapable of being in the wrong. 

But we will never make the world better if we act like this. Thinking of yourself as a smol bean baby is a way of tapping out and expecting other people to fight on your behalf. It also makes you a more pliant consumer. Social media is awash with the idea that ‘it’s valid not to be productive’, as though productivity were the only manifestation of capitalism and streaming Disney+ all day is a form of resistance. It’s much rarer to encounter the idea that we have a responsibility about what we consume, or that satisfying our own desires whenever we want is not always a good thing: “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism” has morphed into “there is no unethical consumption under capitalism”.

Children are the perfect customers: suggestible, impulsive, driven by an insatiable and replenishable desire for pleasure. This is why, in the 1950s, companies leaned into ‘the teenager’ as an emerging market – you can only sell so many long-lasting household appliances. Adverts today are as eager as ever to speak to us as though we are babies, whether it’s Innocent smoothies telling us not to eat conkers or Heinz ketchup announcing that “adulting sucks”. As Felicity Martin wrote on Dazed earlier this week, pre-teen, teen and young women are increasingly being lumped together, consuming the same culture and being marketed the same products.

In an age where so much agency has been taken away from young adults, when they face futures saddled with debt, unable to access the basic material trappings of adulthood... a retreat into the dubious comforts of a pseudo-childhood will have its pull’ – Josh Cohen

Although it’s mostly just annoying, self-infantilisation’s pervasive existence in the culture could also be the harbinger of something more sinister. Last year, the comic book author Alan Moore suggested that the popularity of superhero films represents an “infantilisation that can very often be a precursor to fascism”. This might sound hyperbolic, but it’s true that a certain kind of kitsch infantilism was always a feature of Nazi art, which was hostile to moral ambiguity and formal complexity. Hitler himself was a Disney adult. If the desire to relinquish responsibility for your own life can be considered an infantile trait, it’s easy to see why this would make you more susceptible to authoritarianism. Today’s white nationalists – with their cartoon Pepes and their ‘frens’ – are as smooth-brain and babyish as any online community, while right-wing reactionaries have recently taken to eulogising 90s video games, Blockbuster and Toys R Us – a glorious past that has been robbed from us by wokeness.

In a more subtle way, conservatives self-infantilise by denying their own agency: faced with the supposed “excesses” of the movements for LGTBQ+ rights and racial justice, they see themselves as being pushed towards extremism. But categorising other people as children – who can be overruled in their own best interests – forms part of the same project: in recent years, there has been a concerted effort to raise the age at which trans people can access gender-affirming care. Legislators in at least three states in the US are currently moving to deny this treatment to adults up to the age of 25, on the basis that they are not yet mature enough to provide informed consent. Oppressed groups aren’t always infantilised – in a process known as ‘adultification’, children from racialised minorities are typically viewed as having more agency, which makes them more likely to be criminalised– but the right is happy to deploy a diversity of tactics. Just as it’s a common behaviour in abusive relationships, infantilisation can be a mechanism for political domination and control.

As such, the struggle against infantilisation has always formed a part of feminist, anti-racist, disability justice and anti-colonial movements, which recognised that there is no better way to rob people of agency than treating them as something lesser than an adult. This is all the more reason not to indulge it ourselves. Even if infantilisation is being pushed upon us, even if the helplessness we feel has a tangible basis in reality, even if adulting really does suck, we can still choose to see ourselves as capable of changing our own lives and the world around us. “The harms are undeniable,” says Cohen. “Bottom line: it’s a way of learning to love your oppressor. It takes an acute loss of agency and control and transforms it into a state to be desired and enjoyed. Once you embrace this way of being, the demands and rewards of adult life are going to seem all the more remote and all the more forbidding and unpleasurable.”

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