Peter Pan Syndrome Week Introduction - Peter Pan Syndrome Week on BTR


photo from WikiMedia Commons

Peter: I want always to be a boy, and have fun.

Wendy: You say so, but I think it is your biggest pretend.

Starting Peter Pan Complex Week off with a Peter Pan quote is not exactly the most ingenious idea in the world, but sometimes we find that the most obvious route, when overwhelmed with choices, is best; Ockham’s Razor, or Gillete’s Mach 10 – whatever it’s called – you know what I mean. I could look it up on my iPhone or Macbook, but this would be too fitting for the start of a week about millenials, the generation of people who don’t want to grow up and want all the answers right away.

The Peter Pan syndrome’s utility tool is the smartphone, a small and intimidating creature that is indicative of eternal immaturity; all needs and wants are in our hands with no assembly required. It is the essence of extended adolescence: how can you feel like you’ve accomplished something if you haven’t taken the necessary steps to get there? Is adulthood even an accomplishment any more, or has its reputation taken a bit of a hit? What’s my age again and how can I tell that I’m an adult?

These are the questions of a Peter Pan syndrome sufferer who has reached an advanced step in the recovery process: acceptance. A 2007 Social Psychology Quarterly study on “subjective age identity,” a moniker given to the disassociation of numerical age from emotional age, examined the confluence model of self-perceived development in people aged 18-28. Confluence describes the differing effects of the convergence of “role transitions” and characteristics in a person’s life, concluding in this case how much of an adult that individual considers himself. They found that socioeconomics had pretty much everything to do with it, as the “prolonged exploratory life stage in which they have no enduring adult responsibilities” was found generally to be reserved for wealthier folk.

Outside of economic privilege, arrested development takes place in the parts of the workforce that do not have a typically steady, 9-5 work week. These people jump from gig to gig, manage multiple part-time jobs, and hit up temp agencies in order to make a living – they are in a stage of vicious denial of their PP syndrome. Stability, being a big indicator of classic adulthood, has been to a large extent removed due to the recession and, more dramatically, by the way that the Internet has tossed the economy into a total free-for-all.

Author of Intern Nation Ross Perlin notes that “if the recession persists, the scarring effects on the youngest generation of workers may  be profound. Already the major coping mechanism, decades in the making, is for young people to delay or permanently jettison the traditional milestones of adulthood…the percentage of twenty-six-year-olds living at home is now 20 percent, double the figure for 1970.”

Masculinity studies pioneer and author Dr. Michael Kimmel told BTR that (along with a disgusting and obvious income disparity) the gender divide is widening in America; as women have long struggled to equal men in achievement they may now be on pace to surpass them because women want it all: career, family, happiness – and they don’t take it for granted like men historically have.

“People have very grandiose ideas of what they’d like to do,” Kimmel says , “but they don’t have a way to get there. Basically what has happened is that the workplace has become such a buyer’s market. You’ll do virtually anything to get experience.”

So…can we conclude that privileged men are the only “victims” of PPS? Hardly. Kimmel’s assessment is true to the extent that there may be a slightly more concerted effort on the part of young women to pack it all in before death (or marriage), but it falls short of his competing claim that our life expectancies as Americans have expanded from 67 to 93 in just 50 years. Who wants to be married for a million years?

Adolescence is supposed to be a period of preparation for adulthood, but it is becoming a more Sisyphean task for many people due to the power of choice (again, a privilege), and today’s overburdened labor market. Simply put, in the red corner there is a surplus of aging baby boomers, and in the blue corner, a surplus of millenials whose college degrees look more like subprime mortgages every day. Imagine an aging Peter Pan who dreads nothing more than retirement, a younger Pan who needs a job but would rather not commit to anything too early, a 35 year-old who has finally decided to commit to a career, and then imagine them all fighting over an unpaid internship. Hilarity and one-upmanship will ensue.

Furthermore, if you’re one of those people who takes psychology seriously (ok, ok, popular psychology), you already know that rabid self-promotion is “scientifically” proven to be the key to success. Gone, apparently, is humility and patience, two boring, old-people virtues that have made way for narcissism and restless mind syndrome. In Evgeney Morozov’s awesome book of social media demystification, The Net Delusion, he cites a 2009 poll of 1,068 college students in America from SDSU where “57 percent of them believe that their generation uses social networking sites for self-promotion, narcissism, and attention seeking, while almost 40 percent agreed with the statement that “being self-promoting, narcissistic, overconfident, and attention-seeking is helpful for succeeding in a competitive world.” His point is not to devalue self-promotion, for its benefits are certainly evident in our world, but rather to address social media’s paradoxical ineptitude for group awareness; it isn’t you with the world, it’s you with your computer and a two-dimensional simulation of the world. Glocal my arse.

In this past month’s Atlantic, Lori Gottlieb examines the psychoanalysis of the other popular designation for the millennial generation, the “Narcissists,” pointing to the phenomenon of the unconditional reward system in many American children’s lives that would have B.F. Skinner rolling in his grave. The participation trophies, spirit awards, and never-ending reassurances of uniqueness and specialness all but guarantee that, “instead of feeling good about themselves, they feel better than everyone else.” I have this vivid memory of when I was about nine, sitting inside my elementary school auditorium during a trophy ceremony thinking, I don’t like soccer. I’m not good at it, all I do is run back and forth and think about Power Rangers and the Knicks. Why do we have to play soccer? I like basketball. Ah yes, I was a real American boy back then, hating soccer and enjoying great adaptations of Japanese television.

The late David Foster Wallace had this to say to the Kenyon College class of 2005 concerning growing up in the world of today:

“The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”

Forget about the fact that you might not know the “fish story” and focus instead on the most obvious portion of the quote, the part where he says “obvious” and then “hardest to see and talk about.” Becoming an adult – in these fraught-ass times – is not possessing truth and success and then waiting to die, it’s navigating through a world that wants you to be selfish, but it needs you to be a little better than that. It’s about accepting that people from all angles will force their pedantic ideas upon you about what becoming an adult is, and you’ll decide for yourself which parts sound good and which parts should be left alone. In other words, take this article with a grain of salt – but don’t outright take a dump on it, just for my sake.

How to become a well-adjusted adult after a long, self-absorbed adolescence is going to be quite the test for millenials. Only time will tell, they always say, but time can have a disdainful way of revealing answers long after we need them, much like the awful feeling you get after finding out how obvious the answers were to those proofs you botched on your 10th grade geometry test. Should have studied more, man. Should have studied more.

Article by: Jakob Schnaidt