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Books Grow up

JOHN GREEN is intrigued by a persuasive study of a cultural malaise, and suggests a remedy

Infantilised – How our Culture Killed Adulthood
Keith Hayward
Constable, £25

 

THE increasing infantilisation of our society can be seen all around us. 

Politics and a discussion of the serious issues confronting our world, philosophical and scientific debates, are all relegated to the margins, while we are deluged instead with “celebrity” gossip and the deification of sporting figures, and lulled into lethargy by soporific sit-coms, inane comedy shows, crime and fantasy stories. We are held in a permanent state of immaturity and treated like children without us noticing.

Keith Howard, professor of criminology at the University of Copenhagen and a cultural theorist, here examines this phenomenon and its concomitant, “adultification” with their implications for the health of society.

He bemoans the fact that the different stages in the process of growing up that we recognised in the past, from infancy, through childhood and youth to adulthood have, today, become blurred and confused.

How and why has this situation come about? 

In the US, to begin with, during the immediate post-war period of high employment and relative affluence, capitalism was desperately looking for ways to expand its markets.

The adults who had survived the Depression and the ravages of war were reluctant to squander their money, but their children, a new generation of youngsters with cash in their pockets and leisure time to enjoy emerged as a lucrative new market.

Rock ’n’ roll exploded on the scene like a mortar bomb tossed into a church congregation, challenging traditional values. A new stratum of society emerged: teenagers. For the first time in history, youth became the centre of attention and a whole culture developed to cater for its needs. 

To begin with, this was viewed by the adult world with disquiet and as the sign of a dangerous rebelliousness. This rebellion, however, if that is what it was, was soon captured and tamed by consumer capitalism. This phenomenon was exported to other countries and achieved huge commercial success.

Since then, the rapid increase in the pace of life (rapidity of invention and introduction of new gadgetry) has moved this process up several gears, and increasingly older generations no longer feel capable of passing on their expertise to the young; more often it is the young now teaching the old.

Although Hayward accepts that he is talking here very much about US and British societies, with an increasingly globalised culture, the infantilisation he describes is also having its impact on societies where traditional generational and developmental stages were clearly demarcated and recognised. It didn’t happen, however, in the former socialist countries.

He also looks at the associated process of “adultification”, ie that increasing pressure on children to behave as mini-adults and being treated as adults before they are mature enough. They are going through a sort of accelerated childhood.

The author lashes out widely and gives numerous examples to buttress his arguments. His knowledge and understanding of the wider cultural scene are impressive. He does, though, occasionally risk toppling into bed with right-wing ideologues when, for instance, he derides health and safety precautions (where we are treated like children) and when he mocks the young girl Greta Thunberg being sanctified as an eco-prophet by the adult world, and the street artist Banksy for being “lionised by latte-liberals and bourgeois taste-makers.” 

Surely, that is not their fault but the doing of the insatiable and trivialising media?

Like Peter Pan, we are all urged to embrace eternal youth. Our culture, manipulated by the capitalist need for ever-expanding markets, is keeping us in a stage of interrupted development.

And this, of course, has serious implications for decision-making and the accumulation of wisdom and experience in society.

These phenomena, though, are not aspects of a deadly conspiracy to infantalise us all but simply the logical outcome of an illogical and cynical system.

In his conclusion, Hayward lists 10 “rules” everyone should adopt in order to counter this insidious process, and they are all sound ones for us as individuals, but we will never be able to counter this on an individual level alone; we will need insight, organisation and a broad political movement.

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