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The rise of the inner-child industry

Marielle Segarra Sep 6, 2019
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Adults seem to be increasingly nostalgic for their childhoods.
George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images

Generations of American kids have grown up with the ritual of Saturday morning cartoons: You’d wake up before your parents, sneak to the kitchen, pour yourself a big bowl of cereal and plop down in front of the TV.

For a couple of blissful hours, it was just you and your favorite cartoon characters: the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or the Powerpuff Girls, or Underdog.

On a recent Saturday morning, close to 100 adults gathered in a movie theater in Brooklyn and tried to get that feeling back. 

The event is called Spoons, Toons, & Booze. For $18, you get to eat as much sugary cereal as you want, watch cartoons and drink grown-up beverages.

James Ramirez, who’s 33 and lives in Brooklyn, is a regular. He works as a dispatcher for a corporate car service. 

“I just take rich people’s calls all day, and I have to take their demands seriously, even though sometimes it sounds like they’re panicking over nothing,” Ramirez said. “So this is an escape, just to get away from it.”

Photo by Jess Summers

People are willing to pay good money for this kind of escape — like $350 for a cake-smash photo shoot — the kind parents sometimes do for their kids’ first birthdays.

You’ll find hundreds of these photos on Instagram. A woman in a tutu and a crown sits next to a chalkboard that says: “Ashley. 384 months old. I love: wine and shopping. I hate: adulting.” In the next frame, she smashes her face into a cake.

Jess Summers, a photographer in Ohio, shoots about 10 of these a year. 

“You have to let go of all of your inhibitions of getting dirty, or messy, or sticky, and you just really have to just dig in on that cake,” Summers said.

Summers did a cake smash herself when she turned 30. She also likes to wear rainbow eyeshadow and dresses with fun patterns like dinosaurs.

“I believe that as a child, we were very happy, we did a lot of fun things that genuinely made us smile,” she said. “And growing up, I think that knocks it out of you.”

A lot of adults are going back to the things they loved as kids: scavenger hunts, coloring books, Lego sets and magic shows.

The inner-child industry isn’t just a millennial thing. Baby boomers have hung onto their old train sets and baseball cards. Ninety-year-olds are doing cake smashes. 

Doug Stephens, CEO of the retail consulting firm Retail Prophet, said this is popular now because of where we are as a society. 

“We have global tensions between various countries,” Stephens said. “We have trade wars happening. We are in the midst of a climate crisis. There’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty.”

It’s only natural that people would want to retreat to a safe place, Stephens said.

“And for many of us, that safe place is our childhood,” he said. “And companies are only too happy to accommodate if there’s money to be made in doing so.”

Sometimes there’s no company involved at all.

Every summer, 33-year-old Abbey Watson, her husband and a couple dozen friends set up their own summer camp on the Chesapeake Bay. The property has spotty cell service, so they’re forced to spend some time off the grid. 

They swim, play wiffle ball and hand out merit badges for things like checking in with the office. At night, they make s’mores and hold talent shows.

“It’s basically a week of spending your life in a wet bathing suit smelling like campfire and just kind of running around with your pack of friends like you did as a kid,” Watson said.

Watson and her husband started the camp a few years ago, when she and a lot of their friends worked in the Obama administration. It gave them something they felt they’d lost: “that sense of like closeness and belonging and that, you know, nothing was off limits — like your summer was endless ahead of you just to be with your friends in a way that we don’t really get to do as adults.”

Camp also helps them get back in touch with the creativity — the sense of play that came so naturally when they were kids.

But then, camp ends, and they go back to Washington and to adulthood. At least until next summer. 

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