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The Kidults Are All Right

At the start of our Play theme, we raised an eyebrow at adult colouring books, bars with ball pits and sleepovers at museums.

Not so fast, argues Helen O'Hara. Adulthood holds few of the benefits that it used to and, in turn, the old assumptions about putting aside childish things are being called into question.

WORDS – Helen O'Hara

Too often we think of adulthood as a fixed, immutable state, a place with a sign over the gate that reads, "Abandon Youth, All Ye Who Enter Here." This stuffy, tradition-bound kingdom called Maturity is defined as much by its taboos as its benefits. Citizens are encouraged to buy pensions, to secure a mortgage and perhaps have children, but are barred from anything that smacks of the time before. Games are acceptable only if they qualify as sport; silliness only if accompanied by booze. And if you want to surround yourself with brightly-coloured objects, you must do so only in certain closely-defined circumstances, perhaps when pre-approved by a major fashion house, a local football team or Apple.

But what if the definition of adulthood changes? The staid image of previous generations is falling apart under pressures both financial and cultural, and any bright dividing line that ever existed between adolescence and adulthood is blurring out of recognition. Many of the positive markers of adulthood are financially out of reach for younger adults, trapped in uncertain jobs and a soaring housing market, and rendered financially infertile by the impossible burden of childcare costs. They’re working harder for less than their parents, facing longer life expectancies but smaller pensions, and worrying about the environmental catastrophes that they will live long enough to see. In an age of zero-hour contracts and unpaid internships, adulthood holds few of the benefits that it used to, yet an even greater share of responsibilities. And, in turn, the old assumptions about putting aside childish things are being called into question.

As little as ten years ago, a typical night out in London, as in most of the rest of the UK, revolved principally around alcohol. You’d head out to a local pub, and then – on Saturdays and other special occasions – proceed to a club for more alcohol, and dancing. It’s all a recognisable progression from the pubs and dancehalls of the 1950s, the assembly rooms of the 1780s, all the way back to the village dances of the Middle Ages. Alcohol alchemically transformed any lingering silliness, any lowering of adult inhibitions, into acceptable conduct. Once you were old enough to drink, you were old enough to substitute alcohol for any more childish amusements you once had. Alcohol is the magic potion of adulthood.

But the old assumptions are being challenged. Millenials drink less than previous generations: about 20% are teetotal, while fully two-thirds say that alcohol is not important to their social lives. In my 30s, being teetotal makes me a subject of comment and occasionally makes me a pariah; were I ten years younger it would be unexceptional. This specific change is partly health consciousness, partly financial, and partly a conscious rejection of old norms. And there are easy – too easy – technological explanations that also play at least a small part. For a generation of image-conscious Instagrammers and Snapchatters, nightclub pictures are insufficiently flattering: sweaty, messed-up hair and harsh lighting are not conducive to hundreds of likes. Similarly, endless nights at the same local with the same pint hardly paint the image of an exciting, dynamic life exploring one of the world’s great cities. 

That traditional night out has been judged and found dull and repetitive. But there’s still a need to produce the same sort of high that drinking can give, the same lowering of inhibitions. And one very effective way to do that is by seeking the euphoria and exuberance of play.

There’s a fundamental difference between adults' and children's play, of course. The unselfconscious fantasies of youth, once gone, are gone forever. Pablo Neruda said, “Everything is ceremony in the wild gardens of childhood.” Even playing the same games in adulthood rarely recaptures that solemn sense of utter dedication to an idea, however bizarre the idea might have been. We know now that there are no fairies at the bottom of the garden, and so they’re awfully hard to see even if you go looking. As soon as you’re old enough to worry about the future – and millennials can do little else given their environmental and economic situation – you start to become an adult and you lose the capacity to fully immerse yourself in these other worlds. But there is still a relief to be had in attempting it, in seeking out novel experiences and nostalgia, a rediscovered sense of absurdity and release that relieves the stress.

So venues pop up to cater to this new demographic, especially in cities big enough to ensure a steady influx of fresh customers. One example, Ballie Ballerson in Stoke Newington, offers a nostalgic hit in an “adult play pen over two floors,” with the underground club featuring 250,000 balls on a dancefloor lit with 10,000 LED lights. It’s been sufficiently popular to spawn a pop-up in the Box Park at Shoreditch that’s pure ball pit without even the sheen of a club setting.

“Until you’ve done it I don’t think you can appreciate how relaxing it is,” says Maria, a 29-year-old librarian from south London, of her experience there. “One minute you’re submerged in the ball pit and it’s almost like sensory deprivation; everything is muffled. And then you might start a war with people on the other side of the pit and throw balls back and forth and behave like children. It’s magic – and very Instagrammable.”

ball pit ballie ballersonPhoto: Ballie Ballerson. Photo at top: iStock / LordRunar, and on homepage by Tim Wang.

Newspaper commentators tut at such infantile behaviour, but it’s a clear logical progression from older establishments. First there were theme bars and clubs, like the swimming pool in Club Aquarium, opened in 1995, or the Ice Bar, opened in 2005. Foam parties were popularised in Ibiza and brought to the UK in 1992. Is it such a big step to a ball pit? 

For more fantastical nights, there are events like Gingerline’s Chambers of Flavour, a madcap dining adventure that ushers participants through a different world for each course: enchanted forest, haunted castle or sea adventure. Technology plays a part in that experience, too: diners only learn the location of the event by text about 90 minutes before it begins, but are sworn to keep its details secret and off social media. In a social media age, the best way to create buzz is to positively disown it. In big, hothouse cities like this, word of mouth is the ultimate currency, and the best guarantee of continuing success. Look at Secret Cinema, the immersive cinema experience that combined fantasy and secrecy. It grew from tiny roots in 2007, fuelled by secrecy, before blossoming into a non-secret showcase Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back event that was attended by 100,000 people. Then there's the Natural History Museum's after-school clubs for adults, along with the Dino-snores sleepovers for Jurassically-inclined adults. 

Crucially, these are not necessarily cheaper options than a night clubbing: Secret Cinema: Star Wars costs £75 per ticket, and that Dino-Snores sleepover will set you back £180. Those fees, and the number of young professionals willing to pay them, attach an air of exclusivity and cool to these events. This is something that bankers and lawyers can confess to doing in the office on Monday without fear of ridicule. Thirty years ago such pastimes might have seemed geeky or backwards; now that geek culture is thoroughly mainstream, it’s become a normal activity. There’s even a cachet to camping in London’s greatest landmarks, somehow.

As nearly half of traditional nightclubs close and pubs reach their lowest numbers in a decade, London is awash with more interesting alternatives. For a generation denied the fancy houses and comfortable futures of their parents, why settle for white linen and silver on a fancy meal out when you can attend a Bompas & Parr culinary event? It’s not about seeing and being seen – although that’s a bonus – but about truly reaching for something fresh, new and communal. Becoming an adult is no reason to reject novelty; a willingness to stay open-minded and child-like to a certain degree is a sensible adaptation with lifespans now nudging a century. Who knows what further developments younger adults will see in their lives?

Many of these novelties are just new twists on old ideas, of course; more interesting spins on dining, theatre or even sewing circles and bridge clubs. The difference between dressing up for a night clubbing and cosplaying at a science fiction convention – another growing area – is only one of, well, convention. And there’s very little to distinguish the games of low- or no-stakes whist that Jane Austen’s characters played endlessly and the inventive and complex card games that are becoming popular again at fashionable dinners. “We’re in a golden age of board games,” explains media executive Sam, 34. “The game equivalents of The Godfather or Breaking Bad are being released all the time. As a country that only played Risk and Monopoly (which are both terrible) for decades, it’s mind-blowing. And board games are an activity that doesn’t require interacting too intensely, which appeals to the British mindset.”

There has always been communal play, but this openness about it is new. The author C S Lewis, no stranger to the concerns of either children or adults, said, “Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” 

For a generation today, that fear of childishness is fading, dwarfed by much bigger, more serious terrors. With the pressures of modern life building and our living standards, for the first time in hundreds of years, sliding backwards from one generation to the next, there’s a desperate need to find a place of safety and inspiration. Finding ways to recreate the serious play of childhood is not an irrational response. Do what makes you happy. Jump in the ball pit.

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