Rise of the ‘Kidults’: An obsession with wellbeing in schools, crying rooms at universities – here’s why so many young people are eschewing adult life for an adolescence that stretches into their 30s

Are you, like me, fed up with being treated like a child, talked down to and patronised by a contemporary culture that wants to infantilise us? In almost every sphere of society, a deep-rooted and deeply corrosive culture of immaturity has taken hold, and instead of inhabiting a grown-up world of foresight and experience, we’ve been enrolled, without our consent, into something resembling adult day care.

It’s evident in the pointless and condescending health-and-safety signage that tells you how to use a handrail or a flight of stairs, or in the wheedling tone of that Tannoy announcer who reminds you to ‘stay hydrated’ on a hot day.

It’s there in the mood music emanating from our elite institutions, as museum and gallery curators slather their displays with labels warning visitors that they might find certain objects and artworks provocative, unsettling or problematic. And it’s there in the workplace, where behaviour that used to be dismissed as office politics is recast as bullying.

Many youngsters are opting for infantilism, writes Professor Keith Hayward, rather than taking up many of the responsibilities that come with early adulthood

This sort of induced childishness can be felt right throughout our lives, but perhaps its most damaging effects can be seen in the changing nature of young people. Rather than embracing adulthood as an aspirational destination, many youngsters seem happy to exist in a world of elongated teenagerdom.

In study after study, the data makes it abundantly clear that young people are eschewing grown-up activities and avoiding many of the responsibilities that come with early adulthood, including working, volunteering, managing their own finances, securing a driving licence, or even going on a date – all things that, until very recently, were considered ways of differentiating children from young adults.

Instead, many are opting for infantilism, a term that describes a defence mechanism or psychological regression in which a mature adult fails to exhibit the cognitive and interpersonal skills appropriate to their age in the life-cycle.

For these so-called ‘kidults’ and ‘adultescents’, childhood can extend well into their 30s. So pronounced is this development that some psychologists even claim we are witnessing the emergence of a new life stage which they call emerging adulthood, a period of ‘identity formation’ and ‘self-exploration’ that supposedly covers the years 18 to 29.

But as the road to adulthood grows ever-longer, problems occur. The kidult’s deliberate rejection of adult independence and preference for a cosseted and infantilised lifestyle is resulting in emotional fragility, anxiety and depression on a scale we have never seen before.

A diverse cluster of cultural forces have combined to create this situation, including new forms of advertising and marketing designed to encourage childish behaviour, the rise of ‘safetyism’ and other risk-aversive belief systems, and the elevation and celebration of victimhood to the point that it’s now seen by many as something of a prestige good.

The inherently infantilising nature of online social worlds has also played a pivotal role in denuding adulthood.

We have spawned a generation of young people content to conduct most of their social interactions, indeed much of their lives generally, online. And it is here, in society’s almost pathological obsession with social media – the always available digital pacifier designed specifically to normalise childish fantasies – that infantilism has flourished.

Online culture has created a generation of young people who flinch at the prospect of being emotionally upset and hide away from people who disagree with them or challenge their world view. Likewise, the make-believe nature of the internet has also propagated the fiction that everyone’s opinion needs to be heard and that no single viewpoint is more valuable than any other. In this digital equivalent of childish attention-seeking, outrage has been normalised in the public domain, resulting in a crisis not just of meaning, but of reason itself.

Regrettably, another place where this curse of infantilism has taken root is in the area that should be the greatest antidote to it – our education system. It’s seen in the ‘safe spaces’ and ‘crying rooms’ that are the embarrassing by-products of mollycoddling students instead of preparing them for the inescapable challenges of adult life.

Education should be the frontline of defence in the battle against infantilisation. Unfortunately, this essential barrier has not only been breached but overrun. Instead of instilling the intellectual capacity and habits of thought required to function as responsible, self-determining adults, contemporary education has become what one expert described as a watery blend of mind-emptying ideology and pseudo self-fulfilment.

For example, schools today are awash with fashionable therapeutic concepts like wellbeing, mindfulness, emotional intelligence, self-esteem and resilience.

From their first day of school to their last, our schoolkids are being shaped – indoctrinated, even – by a therapeutic obsession that is re-defining the nature of education. The problem is there are only so many teaching hours in a day, and the more you stuff the timetable full of personality development and self-esteem classes, the less time you have to cover boring educational basics such as grammar and mathematics. In such practices, negativity and critique are banished from the schooling experience and replaced with an endless stream of false praise and psychological boosterism designed to ensure students constantly feel good about themselves. But when we shield children from criticism, we do more harm than good.

When kids are raised on a repetitive diet of empty praise, it diminishes their ability to meet the setbacks and failures that are an inevitable part of life.

One leading exam board put on its English Literature syllabus contributions from the rapper Dizzee Rascal and comedian Russell Brand

One leading exam board put on its English Literature syllabus contributions from the rapper Dizzee Rascal and comedian Russell Brand

Having lost the ability to exercise influence confidently over children through adult-directed curricula, contemporary educationalists are left with little choice but to cleave towards what students supposedly want as opposed to authoritatively determining what it is they need. If something is boring, get rid of it. Content too difficult? Replace it with something more likely to appeal to young people’s tastes.

Thus, one leading exam board put on its English Literature syllabus contributions from the rapper Dizzee Rascal and comedian Russell Brand (who was inexplicably voted ‘the fourth most significant thinker in the world’ by Prospect magazine), an indication of our general dumbing down if ever there was one.

By introducing pop culture with a sell-by date only marginally longer than that of a pasteurised yogurt, curriculum designers have abandoned the idea of instilling core intellectual values within the students in their charge and are affirming that on-trend motivational gimmicks are more important than the content of education.

It’s a similar story in our universities, where newly arrived 18- year-old undergraduates now resemble less mature teenagers on the cusp of adulthood and more fearful schoolchildren adrift in an alien world of adult autonomy.

My own experience as an academic has taught me that infantilisation has become an increasingly normalised feature of university life. I had been teaching a class on terrorism for over a decade, but now I was getting student emails claiming the content was too challenging, the images in my lecture slides upsetting and disturbing. Worryingly, university figures, at all levels, started to take such concerns seriously.

Infantilism was being institutionally entrenched. Instead of cultivating learning habits and sticking to the fundamental task of passing on the knowledge needed for the next generation to advance, many universities were caving in to student demands.

For example, there is now a fixation with being offended which has, at its core, the belief that language and speech can inflict real harm and thus students must be protected at every turn from so-called toxic words and other forms of linguistic pollution.

And so, Glasgow University students studying the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm were warned about the violent material contained within the children’s stories. At Homerton College, Cambridge, trigger warnings were attached to Little House On The Prairie and The Water Babies. Aberdeen University slapped warnings on the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf (‘ableism’, ‘animal death’, ‘black magic’) and J. M. Barrie’s classic fairy tale Peter Pan (‘too challenging’).

Many universities have attached trigger warnings to assigned texts, including at Homerton College, Cambridge, where they were attached to Little House On The Prairie and The Water Babies

Many universities have attached trigger warnings to assigned texts, including at Homerton College, Cambridge, where they were attached to Little House On The Prairie and The Water Babies

Meanwhile, at University College London, students on an archaeology of modern conflict course were told that if they found discussions disturbing, they were free to leave the class.

By acting in this way, universities are fostering a culture of vulnerability in which students are treated not as active, creative individuals, but as passive, emotionally at-risk subjects who cannot be expected to cope with pressure and real intellectual challenge.

This disturbing state of affairs is now overwhelming our universities. New students turn up on campus without the ability to write a critical essay or the application needed to complete basic preparatory reading for seminars.

But who cares, as long as they’ve fully inculcated the requisite emotional skills and wellbeing platitudes needed to flourish in today’s Feelgood High Schools?

For years, lecturers have complained that school leavers were deficient in basic skills. In 2009, a professor from Cardiff University made headlines with his accusation that many English undergraduate students were semi-literate, had read nothing and were not capable of grasping basic ideas that were readily understood by undergraduates a decade before.

However, rather than tackle the problem he raised, universities simply adjusted their standards and practices downwards.

Instead of using their expertise to counter schooling practices responsible for producing undergraduates who can no longer complete the same academic tasks that previous generations undertook without difficulty or complaint (and that are completed today – often to a much higher standard – by students studying elsewhere in the world), managers decided the best way forward was to make universities more like schools.

And so, in lecture halls and seminar rooms, changes are taking place that threaten the very ideal of the university as the guardian of reason, scientific inquiry and philosophical openness. A rising tide of infantilism is trashing academic standards and diminishing cultural life on campus.

It used to be the case that going to university was a time when young people learnt ‘to put away childish things’. Not any more. Thanks to ever-indulgent university leaders, a walk around many contemporary campuses feels as if you’ve inadvertently stumbled upon a theme park or play area.

Universities proudly proclaim facilities such as Lego and Play-Doh rooms, chillout zones, colouring-in spaces and even petting zoos. In the US, nearly a thousand universities offer their students sessions with therapy dogs to reduce the anxiety of study. Likewise, in the UK, puppy rooms have become a must-have campus feature, with Buckingham, Cambridge, Nottingham Trent, University College London, Swansea and London Metropolitan Universities among those deploying psycho-pooches.

When it comes to academic work, subjects have been dumbed down by a 21st-century textbook culture that reduces knowledge to bite-sized chunks, ready for easy regurgitation.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a decent textbook, but when we spoon-feed students with cookie-cutter how-to-pass-the-exam materials, we are undermining a fundamental principle of university education.

With each passing year, undergraduates are provided with new learning resources and support systems designed to enhance the student experience but, still, they complain: ‘It’s all too difficult. Can you make it easier for me?’

The more we have bowed to students’ wishes, the further standards in universities have plummeted – though this decline has been hidden behind a deliberate smokescreen: the fiction that standards are rising.

And it is a fiction. The number of first-class degrees awarded at British universities has more than quadrupled since 1990, with four out of ten undergraduates now getting the top grade.

Grades are constantly rounded up, while assessment criteria and reading/pre-class preparation expectations are watered down. Plagiarism and other rule violations are waved away as part of the learning process.

And yet, despite this all-round softening of the demands and expectations put upon them, many of today’s undergraduates approach university life not as a challenging new experience but as a source of anxiety and emotional distress.

To alleviate this unease, universities have spent vast sums developing new programmes and services designed explicitly to address students’ concerns. But no sooner do administrators address one problem than another university-related mental health pathology emerges to take its place, leaving them playing a never-ending game of therapeutic whack-a-mole.

The commitment to protection is so great that, at some universities, administrators, counsellors and the other apparatchiks tasked with student wellbeing outnumber academic staff. What’s more, almost no one is prepared to push back against this rebalancing of the university mission.

Rather than instilling a much-needed sense of proportionality, universities have instead lent weight to the idea that students must be constantly coddled.

They talk of an epidemic (it’s always an epidemic) of mental health concerns surrounding issues such as exam stress, homesickness, perfection anxiety and handwriting, with many undergraduates now demanding levels of care and emotional support more traditionally associated with a nursery school or kindergarten. Even reading is now considered trauma-inducing.

Professor Hayward writes that we produce battalions of graduates with neither the intellectual capacity nor the interpersonal capabilities required to function effectively in adulthood

Professor Hayward writes that we produce battalions of graduates with neither the intellectual capacity nor the interpersonal capabilities required to function effectively in adulthood

When common educational activities such as sitting an exam or reading a book are deemed to be harmful, it should be obvious that something has gone badly wrong. By mobilising the language of trauma and medicalising the student experience, we have created a bloated culture of vulnerability.

Our universities have been transformed into manicured zones devoid of debate and organised instead around identity validation and safe spaces. These function as protective zones for anyone who may be experiencing stress or who might be offended/triggered by content or arguments they find unsettling. The trouble is that once universities demarcate certain spaces as safe, they imply that the rest of campus (and, by extension, society) is unsafe.

A safe space mentality quickly takes hold that can result in students and professors clamming up for fear of saying anything at all that might be considered hurtful or controversial.

Regrettably, instead of pushing back, university elders have rolled over in the face of any sort of student demand or complaint.

What’s happening on campuses today is not education but capitulation. The dangers of this should be obvious. By treating sensitive issues as potential risks to health, we not only limit intellectual inquiry and student curiosity but, more worryingly, we open the door to a rising tide of illiberal practices – including new forms of insidious censorship, as the notion of being offended provides the moral warrant to ban anything and everything.

Consider the plight of Dr Greg Patton, a professor at the University of Southern California who, when teaching a Zoom class on communication in international business, used an example from Chinese culture to illustrate the distracting nature of filler words (like ‘um’ or ‘er’) when giving a presentation – words such as ‘neige’. This Mandarin word, however, can unfortunately sound like the N-word.

For years Patton had been using it to make his point, but he hadn’t reckoned on the changing sensitivities of today’s students.

Within 24 hours of a particular class in which he repeated neige a number of times, he was engulfed in a firestorm of protest after an anonymous group of black students sent a letter accusing him of callous racism.

Despite a two-decade career of unblemished teaching, Patton was summarily suspended by the university for using ‘words in class that can marginalise, hurt and harm the psychological safety of our students’. He was later exonerated, but this incident illustrates what can happen when all-too-easily offended students are appeased by university leaders.

A fundamental shift has taken place in power relations in our universities, with the growing tendency to include student opinion in a range of discussions about what should be taught, how teaching should be organised and delivered and, increasingly, how the university (and its finances) should be run.

The problem, though, is that student representatives, along with most of the students they supposedly represent, do not have the requisite experience – of life generally, but of other universities specifically – to play a meaningful role in the day-to-day running of a higher education institution. Undergraduate students in particular are entirely unqualified to evaluate the quality of the education they receive until after they’ve received it.

Yet, on campuses everywhere, overconfident youthful experts increasingly call the shots, whether by demanding academic staff include their gender pronouns when introducing themselves, or more generally asserting that: ‘We are the people who know how best we should be taught.’

In previous eras, such ‘expertise’ would have been treated with caution by learned academics who would then consider the evidence before making a decision about what was in the next generation’s best interests.

However, pressure from below has become so normalised that today’s university managers now function as little more than a glorified rubber-stamping outfit.

And we are all the losers as a result. For years, our society relied on schools and universities to deliver adult-directed educational programmes designed to socialise young people and instil within them the uncontroversial idea that they will need to adjust their behaviour and adapt to the world if they are to function effectively within it.

Today, thanks to a confluence of therapeutic teaching practices based on the dubious philosophy that everyone’s a winner and the capitulation of adult authority, schools and universities have become places where self(ish) entitlement and the irrational worldview of the infantilised child are not just tolerated but actively encouraged.

This infantilism has dire consequences. We now produce battalions of graduates with neither the intellectual capacity nor the interpersonal capabilities required to function effectively in adulthood.

Many employers find themselves forced to hold their own screening tests in reading comprehension, writing and maths. They also voice concern that the latest generation are unable to debate and disagree with colleagues who do not share their particular political opinions.

It was once thought that, because of widely adopted liberal attitudes in our society, this generation would be the most tolerant in history. The opposite is true – so much so that some employers now use ‘YIPS’ (young illiberal progressives) to describe staff who appear incapable of seeing the other side of an argument.

Whether it’s in the realm of education, popular culture, the arts, and perhaps, most worryingly, politics, the tentacles of infantilisation are exerting an ever-tightening grip around society, forcing us to re-evaluate what we mean when we talk of childhood, adolescence and, most importantly, the traditional paradigm of mature adulthood.

This may not be the world we want, but it’s the world we’ve created, and whether you like it or not, you’re living in it.

© Keith J. Hayward

  • Keith Hayward is Professor of Criminology at the Faculty of Law, University of Copenhagen. Adapted from Infantilised: How Our Culture Killed Adulthood by Keith J. Hayward, to be published by Constable on June 27 at £25. © Keith J. Hayward 2024. To order a copy for £22.50 (offer valid to 30/06/24; UK P&P free on orders over £25), go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.

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