When I think too long on contemporary grown-ups, I do not like what I see.
Something about it reminds of the final scene in Citizen Kane, after his love interest decides to leave him. Kane (Orson Welles) begins throwing luggage around and tearing up her room, and then, winded by the effort, spots a small snow globe and picks it up. The artificial snow begins swirling around the translucent sphere, and Kane is taken aback — and back — to a wintry time when he was a child.
His famous final line is, “Rosebud.”
After he dies, a large gathering of family, friends, and enemies wonder what his last word meant.
Welles, himself, said it best. “Rosebud is the trade name of a cheap, little sled on which Kane was playing on the day he was taken away from his home and his mother. In his subconsciousness, it represented the simplicity, the comfort, and, above all, the lack of responsibility in his home, and it also stood for his mother’s love, which Kane never lost.”
The devolution of modern adults is a collective treatise on nostalgic longing but often not for experiences we ever really had or adventures we even partook in. Most of us didn’t have sleds. Most of us didn’t have mothers waiting for us at home — they were working. But we had TV, sports, or video games. And, after a while, we had sports on TV or played sports-themed video games. Or skipped sports altogether and focused on fantasy-themed video games, never actually experiencing the thrill of riding or navigating a sled, cheap or otherwise.
Like so many things in contemporary human existence, it is not so much a lost art as the vanishing knowledge of physically inhabited moments that define life at an elemental level. If Citizen Kane is ever remade, “Rosebud” may refer to an Atari joystick. Or the film may never need to be remade because many adults remain committed to video games into their 50s and beyond. And many are consumed by sports viewing or sports wagering, even if they never played the sports they watch or wager on. Many grown men and women are consumed by fantasy, video games, anime, cosplay, or plain old childhood nostalgia. You can find pacifiers for adults and baby wipes for “dudes.”
There are now official, adult dodgeball leagues, and shuffleboard, horseshoes, and croquet have all been replaced with the most childish joke of them all, cornhole. Which is particularly inane, because “cornhole” is sexual slang for “anus.” The term reportedly came into use as a noun in early-20th-century America due to the use of dry corncobs in lieu of toilet paper. Its verb form was popularized in the 1930s as slang for engaging in anal sex. It’s a potty punchline on steroids.
And as adulthood ends, childhood teases a lifetime appointment. Children today spend more time on their phones than outside, physically playing less and, as they become teenagers, having less sex. All this, while their parents are shaving away their pubic hair so that their genitals look more like their children’s. Which seems doubly asinine because, for most of human existence, the appearance of pubic hair historically announced a child’s approach to biological adulthood.
In fact — though it’s nothing new, just accelerated and increasingly universal — adults are spending billions if not trillions of dollars a year to appear as little aged or adult as possible. And it demonstrates a dangerous, burgeoning communal neurosis characterized by a headlong flight into infantilism that modern society clearly fosters if not encourages. Meanwhile, their idle child counterparts are endeavoring mightily to avoid adult endeavors.
English poet William Wordsworth wrote “the child is the father of the man” in 1802, and maybe it was true 220 years ago. But today more and more men and women are perpetually infantile, and their children are trapped in an infantile stasis. It’s all play-pretend, and we are each encouraged to “live our own truth” — with or without one another or the last or next generation. One of the next fortunes will probably be made by the creator of adult bed mobiles featuring spinning figures from Game of Thrones or Star Wars to soothe us when we silence the iPhone or turn off the flatscreen TV and try to fall asleep.
But back to the kids.
Social media and digital communication platforms allow youths to forgo interpersonal, face-to-face engagements, so young people are less and less capable of navigating these situations healthily or productively. Many young people are more committed and devoted to virtual relationships than actual, face-to-face connections with the people they live among or encounter every day. Their personal detachment leads to impractical isolation and retards their social development.
There is certainly more to life than work, but consider this passage regarding infantilism in the workplace in Medium earlier this year.
Employers need employees who are self-motivated, able to take initiative, and willing to learn and adapt. When adults exhibit childlike behavior, such as expecting constant praise and recognition, avoiding challenges, and being unable to handle criticism, they become a liability rather than an asset to their employer. This can lead to decreased productivity, increased turnover, and a general decline in the quality of work being produced.
Well, not if you avoid the workforce.
But it’s as true in human relationships as it is in the workplace.
It’s true of our 46th president.
It defines our political parties.
It’s inherent in contemporary social movements. It often even seems true of Americans in general because we are no longer conjointly whole. Free market Capitalism has converted de Tocqueville’s chronicle of “enlightened self-interest” to simply self-interest. And our exaggeratedly innocent and uncomplicated past — where we had fewer opinions and enjoyed fewer responsibilities — beckons almost dreamlike, an attractive mirage.
The real reason the old want their youth back so badly (or never want to leave it) is that they didn’t spend it particularly productively and didn’t appreciate it for what it was at the time. And, ultimately, they have this simultaneously in common with Gen Z, which, excepting a lack of pubic hair, is literally doing and experiencing even less than their parental or grandparental units.
We’re no longer encouraged to be grown-ups or adults, which allows the powers that be to manipulate and pit us against each other more easily while they bury us all under their own childlike indulgences.
Which means our children’s “Rosebud” will be an earbud and their children’s children will likely enjoy implanted earbuds to feed them the answers and teach them what to believe — but not how to think — rendering them children even as adults.
A brave new world full of cowards.
Fort Worth writer and journalist E.R. Bills is the author of the upcoming Letters from Texas, 2021-2023.
This column reflects the opinions and fact-gathering of the author(s) and only the author(s) and not the Fort Worth Weekly. To submit a column, please email Editor Anthony Mariani at Anthony@FWWeekly.com. He will gently edit it for clarity and concision.