To celebrate my 33rd birthday, I went to see the GI Joe movie. What’s wrong with this sentence? Sure, the movie was crap, but I knew that going in. Still, I felt compelled to see it. This may sound like an alcoholic after another drink, wondering why he expected a different outcome this time. But see it I did.
Being in your mid-30s, childless, and still going to see movies based on 80s toy franchises is indicative of a larger trend: our basic refusal to grow up. Why is this? Sure, your hair falls out, your hangovers last three days instead of three hours and you keep moving closer to death. Still, it’s not all bad. Is it?
Last year in Estonia I went to see Rambo IV. Apart from Sly’s botched face job, my biggest surprise was that I was twice the age of everyone else in the cinema. This rarely happens to me in NATO countries. What gives? Then it hit me. Estonians my age grew up in the Soviet Union. They weren’t saturated by Cold War Hollywood culture as we were. And so, they aren’t stuck in it anymore. They grew up. When they go to the cinema, they see adult movies. No, not those. You know what I mean.
In Eastern Europe, people over 20 get offended if you say they go to school. They instantly correct you, pointing out that they go to “the University” or “the Institute.” School is for children. We, however, quite like the idea of going to school. It makes us feel young.
So the question remains. Why are we so afraid to grow up? When did being young stop being the means to an end and start becoming an end in itself?
Youth culture started, as everything did, with Elvis. Small wonder that people are reluctant to grow up (and out) when they see what happened to him. Still, youth culture really took off in the 60s. Almost as soon as the 60s were over, people started getting nostalgic about them. Just listen to (or have someone translate) the song “Öll mín bestu ár” from 1976. All together now, “Árið 69, þegar Trúbrot var og hét…”
The 60s generation was the first that refused to grow up, and every generation since has taken their lead. Coming-of-age stories of the kind that Nick Hornby specialises in used to be about teenagers, then 20-somethings. Now they deal with 35 year olds trying to find their way.
Perhaps the reason is rather simple. As the hippies knew, we are living in a morally bankrupt society. Capitalist employers, from the banks to the advertising agencies, force everyone to do things they don’t really like doing. To be true to our natures, to be curious and creative, we either have to stay in school as long as possible or pursue a career in the arts, which will most likely fail. Both pursuits best become the young. Small wonder then that artists, actors, and rock stars are the biggest heroes of our culture. They are the lucky few who have managed to get paid, as Springsteen said, “a king’s ransom for doing what comes naturally.” Accountants, who do nothing but count money, should be the superstars of capitalism if the system felt natural to us. It doesn’t, and so we rightly see them as the most boring people about.
For those doomed to adulthood, nothing awaits but debt, mortgages and dreary jobs. Small wonder that most people think of their school years as the best time of their lives. Learning something new every day is in our nature.