In these paltry times of capitalism’s triumph, as we slide into consumer narcissism, Shakespeare’s seven ages of man are in danger of being washed away by lifelong puerility. Pop-cultural journalists depict a new species of perennial adolescentkidults, rejuveniles, twixters, adultescents. They are discerning the consequence of a powerful new cultural ethos of induced childishness, an infantilization that is closely tied to the demands of consumer capitalism in a global market economy.
In an epoch when fear of jihad is as prevalent as the infringement on liberties to which fear gives rise, it may seem self-indulgent to fret about the dangers of hyperconsumerism. When poor children in the developing world are being starved, prostituted, and impressed into military service, anxiety about the prosperous young in the developed world who may be growing up into consumers too fast, or about adult consumers being dumbed down, can seem solipsistic.
Yet as James Madison said long ago, the pathologies of liberty can be as perilous as the pathologies of tyrannyand far more difficult to discern or remedy. The diseases of prosperity that are the afflictions of capitalism do not kill outright. They violate no explicit laws. Yet capitalism’s success breeds new and dangerous challenges.
Once upon a time, capitalism was allied with virtues that contributed at least marginally to democracy, responsibility, and citizenship. Today it is allied with vices thatalthough they serve consumerismundermine democracy, responsibility, and citizenship. The question is not whether there is an alternative to markets but whether markets can be made to meet the real needs capitalism is designed to serve, whether not just democracy but capitalism itself can survive the infantilist ethos upon which it has come to depend. Either capitalism will regain its capacity to promote equality as well as profit, diversity as well as consumption, or infantilization will undo not only democracy but capitalism itself.
Infantilization is at once an elusive and a confrontational term, a potent metaphor that points on one hand to the dumbing down of goods and shoppers in a global economy that seems to produce more goods than people need and that points, on the other hand, to the targeting of children as consumers in a market where there are never enough shoppers.
On the potency of adolescent culture, liberals and conservatives agree. Writes Robert J. Samuelson: “We live in an age when people increasingly refuse to act their age. The young (or many of them) yearn to be older, while the older (or many of them) yearn to be younger. We have progressively demolished the life cycle’s traditional stages, shortening childhood and following it with a few murky passages. Adolescence begins before puberty and, for some, lasts forever…” Samuelson is echoed by Joseph Epstein: “The whole sweep of advertising, which is to say of market, culture since soon after World War II has been continuously to lower the criteria of youthfulness while extending the possibility for seeming youthful to older and older people.” Little surprise then that magazines such as Time (“They Just Won’t Grow Up”) and New York (“Forever Youngish: Why Nobody Wants to Be an Adult Anymore”) worry in major cover articles about America’s Peter Pan tendencies.
There is anecdotal evidence everywhere: airport police handing out lollipops to placate irate passengers; television news divisions turned over to entertainment executives; the New York Times Magazine urging thongs on seven-year-olds; the professionalization of high-school sports that turns teen basketball courts into NBA recruiting turf and basketball-player bodies into advertising billboards; adult readers flocking to Harry Potter; fast-food franchises girdling the world to exploit children’s restless aversion to sit-down dining; teen guy games such as World of Warcraft, Grand Theft Auto, and Narc and comic-book films such as “Terminator,” “Spider-Man,” and “Shrek” dominating the entertainment market; cosmetic surgery and sexual performance drugs becoming staples of boomers trying to smuggle atavistic youth into the age of Social Security; businessmen in baseball caps mimicking the studied sloppiness of their kids.
Beyond pop culture, the infantilist ethos also dominates as the marks of perpetual childishness are grafted onto adults who indulge in puerility without pleasure and indolence without innocence. Hence, the new consumer penchant for age without dignity, dress without formality, sex without reproduction, work without discipline, play without spontaneity, acquisition without purpose, certainty without doubt, life without responsibility, and narcissism into old age and unto death without a hint of wisdom or humility. Civilization is not an ideal or an aspiration, it is a video game.
These anecdotes tell a story, but infantilizationnot second childhood but enduring childishnessis more than a mesmeric metaphor. A new cultural ethos is being forged. Marketers and merchandisers are self-consciously chasing a youthful commercial constituency sufficiently padded in its pocketbook to be an attractive market yet sufficiently unformed in its tastes as to be vulnerable to corporate manipulation. At the same time, these avatars of consumer capitalism are seeking to encourage adult regression, hoping to rekindle in grown-ups the tastes and habits of children so that they can sell the useless cornucopia of games and gadgets for which there is no discernible “need market” other than the one created by capitalism’s frantic imperative to sell.
As the population in the developed world ages, the definition of youth simply moves up. The Economist summed it up in its millennium special report: “Once, when you grew up you put away childish things. Today, the 35-year-old Wall Street analyst who zips to work on his push-scooter, listening to Moby on his headphones and carrying annual reports in his backpack, has far more in common with a 20-year-old than he would have done a generation ago.” A physicians’ organization called the Society for Adolescent Medicine reports on its website that it is concerned with people 10 to 26 years old, while the MacArthur Foundation’s “Transitions to Adulthood” project puts the transition’s end at 34 years old.
The irony is that Americans are actually getting older, the median age having moved from 25 in the baby boomer high-water year of 1960 to 35 in 2000; by 2050 there will be more in their seventies than in their teens. Only in the Third World and in the Third World immigrant communities of the First World is the majority constituted by the young, although they often lack the means to express their puerility in consumption.
In capitalism’s more creative and successful period, a productivist capitalism prospered by meeting the real needs of real people. Creating a synergy between making money and helping othersthe Puritan Protestant formula for entrepreneurial virtueproducers profited by making commodities for the workers they employed, a circle of virtue that benefited both classes and society at large. Today consumerist capitalism profits only when it can address those whose essential needs have already been satisfied but who have the means to assuage invented needs.
In this new epoch in which the needy are without income and the well heeled are without needs, radical inequality is simply assumed. The United States and Canada, with just over 5 percent of the world’s population, control almost one-third of the world’s private consumption expenditures. Western Europe, with 6.4 percent of the population, controls almost 29 percent of expenditures. That means 11.5 percent of the world’s population controls 60 percent of the world’s consumer spending. On the other hand, sub-Saharan Africa, with nearly 11 percent of the population, controls only 1.2 percent of consumer expenditures.
Inequality leaves capitalism with a dilemma: the overproducing capitalist market must either grow or expire. If the poor cannot be enriched enough to become consumers, then grown-ups in the First World, with vast disposable income but few needs, will have to be enticed into shopping. The founder of Filene’s department store, on a visit to Paris back in 1935, grasped even then that (in Victoria de Grazia’s description) “the chief economic problem facing the industrial world was to distribute goods in accordance with the now patently inexhaustible capacity to produce them. Not the overproduction of merchandise, but its nondistribution was the problem. From the point of view of businesspeople, they were not producing too much, consumers were buying too little.” Inducing consumers to remain childish and impetuous in their taste helps ensure that they will buy the global goods designed for indolent and prosperous youth.
I am not reading the notion of infantilization into what the market is doing in order to illuminate its practices in an era of mandatory selling; I am extrapolating out of the actual practices the idea of manufacturing needs and encouraging infantilization. I am not suggesting in the passive voice that there “is a process of infantilization underway.” I am arguing that many of our primary business, educational, and governmental institutions are purposefully engaged in infantilization. For this is how we maintain a system of consumerist capitalism no longer supported by the traditional market forces of supply and demand.
Merchandizing advocates like Gene Del Vecchio tell clients that capitalism is under siege and that to sell in the global marketplace where “the demand for adult goods and services has proven not to be endless,” and where there is little profit in selling to those in need, manufacturers must not only create homogenous global products aimed at the wealthy young, but must embark on what Norma Pecora calls “consumerization of the child.” According to Del Vecchio, the new capitalism must spark a “kidquake of kid-directed goods and services” aimed at children old enough “to articulate their preferences hence, children ages four and older.” The advertising industry in the United States alone spent over $230 billion in 2001, with as much as $40 billion aimed at children.
No one has identified what is happening with greater lucidity than Boston College cultural critic Juliet B. Schor: “The United States,” she writes, “is the most consumer-oriented society in the world … [and] the architects of this culture … have now set their sights on children…. Kids and teens are now the epicenter of American consumer culture. They command the attention, creativity, and dollars of advertisers. Their tastes drive market trends.” Thus consumerism urges us to retrieve the childish things the Bible told us we had to put away and enter a modern digital playground for adults who, the market seems to have concluded, no longer need to grow up. Rather than employ schools to help children grow out of their toys, we import toys into the schoolsvideo games and computers as “edutainment” teaching aids, as well as ad-sponsored TV in the classroom. Jenn Shreve comments, “[T]raditional teaching methods simply can’t compete with the appeal of a commercial world of games that makes children heroes or puts the fate of Harry Potter in their hands .”
In high-school classrooms, this commercialization is supported by outfits like Channel One Network that offer in-school soft “news” television complete with advertisements that sell at rates that rival the Super Bowl. In higher education, colleges and universities that once acted as a counterpoint to commercial culture have gone prostrate before corporate sponsors of research that administrators have neither the will nor the independent funding to oppose. College marketing specialist David Morrison sees students as “voracious consumers who use self-gratification to offset the rigors of academics and the stress of an uncertain future.” This ethos catalyzes a novel identity politics in which consumer branding rather than race, religion, and other forms of ascriptive identity along with voluntary civic and political identity comes to define who we are.
More and more adults, according to critic Joseph Epstein, are “locked in a high school of the mind, eating dry cereal, watching a vast quantity of television, hoping to make sexual scores” and generally enjoying “perpetual adolescence, cut loose, free of responsibility, without the real pressures that life, that messy business, always exerts.” Norma Pecora adds, “with the consumerization of the child comes the ideological shaping of the adult. That is not to say we will all demand our Lion King as adults, though several recent commercials play on the child within, but we will come to expect life to play out in particular ways.” It is our expectations about how life plays out that the infantilist ethos conditions.
That landscape’s contours can be reduced to three archetypical dualisms: easy over hard, simple over complex, and fast over slow.
The tensions between easy and hard have challenged every society, but ours is perhaps the first in which the adult institutions seem to be on the side of easy. Weight loss without exercise, marriage without commitment, internet “college degrees” without course work, athletic success through steroids and showboating. In the realm of foreign policy, President Bush’s high-minded global strategy of liberty shares the ethos of easy, comprised by words without consequences: war without conscription, idealism without taxation, morality without sacrifice. An infantile dream-view of the world in which saying “I want it to be so” is enough to make it so, in which critic Slavoj ˇZiˇzek has pointedly remarked, the consumer market offers products that make choice easy“products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol…”
As an entailment of its preference for easy over hard, the infantilist ethos also prefers the simple to the complex. Simplicity has a sweetness all its own, but adult civilizations are generally defined by their capacity to embrace nuance and complexity. This preference is evident in domains dominated by simple tastesfast food and moronic movies, revved-up spectator sports and dumbed-down video games, all of which are linked into the nexus of consumer merchandising that the infantilist ethos nurtures and promotes.
In an acute New Yorker profile of the celebrated basketball player Shaquille O’Neal, Rebecca Mead describes how “American culture is increasingly geared to the tastes of teen-age boys” by showing how Shaq lives the life of an unformed teen, utterly secure in the “simplicity of his tastes.” When Shaq celebrated his 30th birthday party with a red carpet with Superman logos projected in spinning light in his living room and a cake with O’Neal depicted as Superman as the climax, he was acting out a role the corporation that employed him helped design and perfect.
The preference for easy over hard and simple over complex issues naturally in a preference of fast over slow. It has been 75 years since philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote In Praise of Idleness, and since that time “the pleasure of slowness,” Milan Kundera observed not long ago, “has disappeared.”
Fast translates into instantaneity, which writer James Gleick observes, “rules in the network and in our emotional lives: instant coffee, instant intimacy, instant replay,” and, bringing us back to what is perhaps infantilization’s greatest departure from the old Protestant ethos, instant gratification.
The pleasure principle, unadulterated, destroys the life it pleasures, grasping, seizing, and hurting at will. That is why civilizations, although they may prize aspects of childhood just as individuals do, will lean institutionally toward the disciplining of impulse. But now, for the first time in history, a society has felt its economic survival demands a kind of controlled regression, a culture that promotes puerility rather than maturation. The strategy does not represent a campaign to recognize those features of childhood that might be sources of virtueinnocence, authenticity, creativity, and playfulness. On the contrary, it is a campaign to repress those features of childhood in favor of others that makes adults vulnerable, manipulable, impulsive, irrational. This strategy makes good commercial sense since the market does not infantilize out of an ethical love for children but only out of an instrumental need to sell unnecessary goods to people whose adult judgment and tastes are obstacles.
Frozen in time, aging adults remain youth consumers throughout their lives, while toddlers and preteen “tweens” are converted into “adult” consumers as they come “on line” at an ever younger age. Thus capitalism in its late consumerist phase postpones its rendezvous with destiny and survives at least another generation or two.
Adult cultures are plural and distinctive. Youth culture is not only simplisticit is remarkably universal. In the apt description of Chip Walker, “despite different cultures, middle-class youth all over the world seem to live their lives as if in a parallel universe. They get up in the morning, put on their Levi’s and Nikes, grab their caps, backpacks, and Sony personal CD players, and head for school.” There are French citoyens and Ibo tribesmen and Iraqi Sunnis, but kids are kids. If their countries and tribes and religions can be made to appear as secondary to their global market tastes and youthbranded appetites as children, capitalism need not be impeded by pluralism. A global consumer economy in a world of differentiated cultures depends on the ability to sell uniform goods. According to Naomi Klein, the question is “What is the best way to sell identical products across multiple borders? What voice should advertisers use to address the whole world at once? How can one company accommodate cultural difference while still remaining internally coherent?” The business guru James U. McNeal, who has written what admirers call the “bible for all children’s marketers,” has a compelling answer:
[C]hildren are very much alike around the industrialized world. They love to play… they love to snack … and they love being children with other children (in contrast to assuming most adult roles). The result is that they very much want the same things, that they generally translate their needs into similar wants that tend to transcend culture.
The starting point for McNeal’s logic, as well as Klein’s, is William Greider’s global market world of surplus production: too many goods chasing too few consumers in an era of diminishing consumer wants, at least among those with disposable income, in a global economy where customers with the means to buy are too diverse to desire the same goods. Quite simply, in a world of too many commodities and too few shoppers, children become valuable as consumers. And as a bonus, the client constituency grows as the children grow. As David Jones and Doris Klein wrote over 35 years ago, “the child wants what it wants when it wants it, without consideration of the needs of others, and man-child does not outgrow this pattern.”
The trouble faced by democratic society is not simply that it is deprived of the responsible grown-up citizens who are its legitimate custodians but that the ethic of infantilization perverts childhood as well, prompting us to treat children instrumentallynot as little beings to be serviced by capitalism but as themselves servants of capitalism. J.M. Barrie’s fantasy of Peter Pan is neatly inverted. For Barrie, the dream was for kids never to grow up so that they might be spared the burdens of responsible adulthood.
Modern merchandisers don’t want Peter to grow up eithernot to preserve his innocence, not to keep him safe but to make him their loyal customer, to exploit his separation from family to make him theirs, to prompt him to buy the fun for which youth once offered him costless access.
To the professional keepers of the infantilist ethos, whose task is nicely euphemized by Del Vecchio as “creating ever-cool,” waging the war for the soul of Peter Pan means engaging in a great battle, a struggle to achieve what Thomas Frank calls “conquest of cool.” This “will be won by the company that best understands kids, their emotional needs, their fantasies, their dreams, their desires. Such knowledge is the mightiest weapon in a marketer’s arsenal to win a child’s heart,” Del Vecchio writes. Exit sensitive writers like Barrie and Lewis Carroll who capture children in literature to free the imagination. Enter those whose aim it is to capture children’s imagination in order to indenture them to the marketplace: enter Super Mario Bros., Britney Spears, “American Idol.” Kiddie consumerism dressed up as consumer cool. Peter Pan incarcerated in what Mike Davis once called the “panoptican mall” in the “carceral city.” Wendy watching the Home Shopping Network.
Del Vecchio’s words manifest not merely an ethos of marketing, but politics made argumentative and simplistic; ideology focused on narcissism and interest; tele-religion and commercialized revivalism offering shallow solutions to deep problemsall deployed on behalf of a declining global economy unable to sell the poor what they need but trying desperately to sell the prosperous what they don’t need. Infantilization in this instrumentalist form signals the abandonment of Western civilization’s understanding of childhood as a precious legacy and childrennot yet capable of autonomy or self-defenseas ends in themselves, whose happiness and well-being are the ultimate object of public good. Thus our democracy is corrupted, our republican realm of public goods and citizens is gradually individualized, and the capitalist economy, once intended to serve democracy and the republican commonweal, is bent and soon likely to be broken.
It was once rather common for conservatives to pillory welfare statism for creating childlike dependency. Totalitarian states historically were thought to act as overweening authorities that infantilized their subjects to keep them in line. Yet if paternalistic states create top-down forms of infantilization, markets today are creating bottom-up formsless visible because they arise from supposedly pluralistic and competitive markets that turn out to be coercive in intractable ways as they seek to inspire childlike dependency in consumers.
The logic carries all the way down to toddlers and perhaps even fetuses, who can be treated as shoppers in potentia. According to the Center for a New American Dream, “babies as young as six months of age can form mental images of corporate logos and mascots,” which means “brand loyalties can be established as early as age two.” It follows that “by the time children head off to school most can recognize hundreds of brand logos.” Kids’ marketer James McNeal splits the difference, identifying the ideal “kid customer” as “a confident little 9 year old with a cute little nose and arms full of shopping bags, emerging from a department store … confident, a big spender, able to cope in the market place.” After all, “kids are the most unsophisticated of all consumers. They have the least and therefore want the most. Consequently, they are in a perfect position to be taken.”
It takes more than mere marketing to score a hit on targeted children, however. It requires that the target be separated from its protective environment: that it be uprooted from the homes and habits that protect it. Wendy and her brothers, seduced by Peter Pan, flew from home to escape the grown-ups who were fixed on seeing them all grow up. Liberation now means establishing children’s boutiques and Disney and Warner Brothers stores as adult-free zones. It means arranging mall space so that teen and youth shops are on different floors so that the young will shop separately from their parents.
Children in earlier totalitarian societies were stripped of familial loyalties and made to serve the party in the name of liberty from “untrustworthy” and “unpatriotic” parents“Turn your parents in if they are disloyal to the Party!” Today children’s gatekeepers are pushed out of the way in the name of “empowerment”the need to make children “autonomous” consumers.
These are not philosophical abstractions drawn from the old Left cultural critique of capitalism that must be read into the marketplace. It is what marketplace vendors acknowledge, even boast, they are doing. In business lingo, this individuation of choice is “market segmentation,” which, Pecora writes, is portrayed as “consistent with a shift in general consumer patterns from family needs and wants to individual consumption.” The child embedded in a family community makes a poor shopper. But the child liberated through marketing to become a four-year-old “individual” becomes an apt consumer capable even of being an “influencer” over income dispensed by subordinate parents. But in truth, autonomy leaves it vulnerable, unprotected, and susceptible to manipulation.
The misuse of terms like “autonomy” and “empowerment” to rationalize selling to children far too young to possess either liberty or judgment (the two key components of self-determining power) is typical of an infantilist ethos that reinforces consumer market ideology by providing corporate predators with an altruistic ethic to rationalize selfish ends. Genuine empowerment always treats the person as an end in herself and is defined by the domain of education, not advertising. It is measured by increased capacity to resist manipulation, not increased vulnerability to it. Hence infantilization is empowerment’s antonym.
The cultural pathology of late consumer capitalism effectively prioritizes consumerism at the expense of capitalism’s traditional balance between production and consumption, work and leisure, and investment and spending. This behavior turns out to be remarkably unaccommodating to civilizing tendencies. It mimics infantile aggressiveness in striking ways. The consumer at once both imbibes the world of products and so conquers it and yet is defined via brands, trademarks, and consumer identity. She trumpets her freedom even as she is locked in the cage of private desire and unrestrained libido. She announces a faux consumer power even as she renounces her real citizen power. The boundary separating her from what she buys vanishes. She becomes the goods she buysa Calvin Klein torrid teen or a politically conscious Benetton rebel or a Crate & Barrel urban homesteader or a plasma television Nike spectator “athlete.”
In thinking he has conquered the world of things, the consumer is in fact consumed by them. In trying to enlarge himself, he vanishes. His so-called freedom evaporates even as it is named, for it seals off the public consequences of private choices. The gloating Hummer owner may preen with macho pride, unaware or uncaring that he drives a behemoth that makes the U.S. dependent on foreign oil resources, contributing quite inadvertently to the justification for military interventions he otherwise opposes.
The hidden social costs of consumer preferences are notated neither in the consciousness of consumers nor the statistical indices of the U.S. Treasury Department. The consumer is radically individuated rather than socially embedded and less rather than more free as a consequence. He is permitted to choose from a menu of options offered by the world but not to alter or improve the menu or the world. In this, the dynamics of consumption actually render the individual more rather than less vulnerable to control. The full-time consumer as imagined by the aggressive marketing executive ideally acts regressively, more like an impulsive child than an adult.
The citizen, on the other hand, is an adult, a public chooser empowered by social freedom to effect the environment of choice and the agendas by which choices are determined and portrayed; the infantilized consumer is the private chooser, whose power to participate in communities or effect change is diminished and whose public judgment is attenuated. The infantilist ethos, then, does the necessary work of consumer capitalism but at the expense of the civilization that productivist capitalism helped create.
Capitalism has come full circle. Originating in an extraordinary synergy between selfishness and altruism, profit and productivity, it once allowed energetic risk takers to prosper by serving the growth and welfare of emerging nations. It did so with the succor of a Protestant ethos that lent moral weight to hard work, far-sighted investment, and ascetic self-denialthe very qualities productivist capitalism needed to thrive. Today its productive capacity has outrun the needs it once served even as its distributive capacity has been stymied by the growing global inequalities it has catalyzed. Depending for its success on consumerism rather than productivity, it has generated an ethos of infantilization that prizes the very attributes the Protestant ethos condemned. It seems quite literally to be consuming itself, leaving democracy in peril and the fate of citizens uncertain. Although it affects to prize and enhance liberty, it leaves liberty’s meaning ambiguous in an epoch where shopping seems to have become a more persuasive marker of freedom than voting, and where what we do alone in the mall counts more than what we do together in the public square.
Benjamin R. Barber is the Kekst Professor of Civil Society at the University of Maryland and the author of Jihad vs. McWorld. This essay is adapted from Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole by Benjamin R. Barber. Copyright 2007. Reprinted with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.