Being a child is very different today than it was before the internet consumed humanity. Like so many of us, children spend an excessive amount of time online. Some spend dozens of hours each week immersed in virtual worlds. Actual toys simply can’t compete with the allure of digital devices. The toy industry, very much in trouble, is in desperate need of saving.
In fact, if it weren’t for adults, the toy industry would be all but done. Yes, adults. You see, across the U.S., from Boston to Bakersfield, adults, most of them young men, are purchasing toys in record numbers. Not for their children’s use but for their own.
In the run-up to the recent Christmas holidays, CNBC published an interesting story on the state of the U.S. toy industry, referencing a distinct consumer group known as “kidults.” According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a kidult is an “adult who likes doing or buying things that are intended for children.” In other words, these are people who prefer to act their shoe size rather than their age. They are kids at heart, all day, every day, for eternity.
According to the CNBC piece, kidults are responsible for 25 percent of all toy sales annually in the U.S. Moreover, the number of these child-like adults is growing. Over the coming years, their contribution to the industry is expected to increase dramatically.
These kidults, consisting mostly of young men in their 20s and 30s, enjoy nothing more than spending their disposable income on toys. With a particular fondness for “cartoons, superheroes and collectibles that remind them of their childhood,” they purchase “action figures, Lego sets and dolls” that were once marketed to children. Now, though, due to increased demand from juvenile adults, toy makers, as the CNBC piece noted, have started specific product lines tailored to a “generation of adults who still want to have fun.” The adult-sized Razor scooters and a Captain America shield catered to “grown-ups.”
On social media, videos of adults purchasing toys for themselves have billions of views.
Speaking to CNBC, Jeremy Padawer, chief brand officer at toy company Jazwares, insisted that the definition of adulthood is undergoing a rapid evolution. No longer does the term refer to a period in the human lifespan intimately associated with physical and intellectual maturity. Now, adulthood is directly associated with the ability “to express our fandom.” After adolescence, it seems, comes “adultescence.”
Many of the consumers appear to be suffering from extreme cases of nostalgia, an over-sentimental longing or plaintive affection for the past. This explains why thousands of young men who came of age in the ’90s now purchase Hot Wheels, Star Wars toys, and Ninja Turtle figures. They are slaves to the brands, movies, and cartoons that defined their childhoods. The “Marvelization” of the movie industry is not being driven by teens; it’s being driven by Millennials, mostly men in their late 20s and 30s.
Nostalgia is a lot like chili powder. A little bit is OK. Too much, though, and real danger awaits. Nostalgia can be helpful, but it can also be extremely harmful. Spending too much time reflecting on the past makes it difficult, if not impossible, to move forward. Nostalgia is also associated with regression, a psychological defense mechanism that sees an individual cope with stressful events by reverting to an earlier developmental stage. Regression comes in many forms, from throwing a tantrum when stuck in traffic to spending hundreds of dollars on LEGO sets.
The kidults issue must be viewed through a much broader lens, one that is directly associated with the infantilization of American culture, a phenomenon that has been occurring for years. Sociologists have long spoken about the “Disneyfication” of American society, where physical environments and certain narratives are given a childish makeover. The “Disneyfication” is especially evident in the world of academia, with college students being treated like young children.
These young adults regularly have their social media accounts monitored. If they happen to be feeling a little edgy, they can take refuge in one of the many “safe spaces” provided by campuses across the land. The Disneyfication process has also affected how we communicate, with emojis, GIFs, and LOLs replacing actual language. Adults regularly communicate like children. Is it any wonder that so many adults now play with toys?
This brings us back to men in their 20s and 30s acting like children in their 2s and 3s. Sadly, if being a man involves overcoming stubborn, childish ways, then the toy industry should expect to have many lucrative years ahead.