FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Adulthood Redefined

In the past, we've discussed the phenomenon of kidults and yupsters -- adults who prefer the fashions, music, trends and lifestyles of those much younger than themselves. Now, we can add a new buzzword to our collection: grups. Grups, however, are not stuck in adolescence, but are intent on redefining the very essence of adulthood.

The word comes from an old Star Trek episode in which the Starship Enterprise encounters a planet populated and run entirely by children, who call Kirk and the crew "grups," short for grown-ups. An article about grups by Adam Stenbergh in New York magazine cites many of the familiar grup/kidult/yupster characteristics, though their take on it emphasizes affluence and materialism (spending hundreds of dollars on shredded jeans and vintage rock t-shirts), as well as some aspects of maturity (unlike kidults who never left home, many grups have marriages, kids and careers).

Truth is, pretty much everone under the age of 50 exhibits some grup-like characteristics. In fact, the New York piece makes a tongue-in-cheek stab at ranking "the four stages of grupitude." But why is this happening? And what's the significance?

The most obvious consequence may not be that grups/yupsters/whatever are fighting aging so much as that the "generation gap" that delineated the kid and the adult worlds has disappeared. Not only do thirty- and fortysomethings enjoy current pop culture, but their children appreciate the music, movies and fashions of their parents' youth (witness VH1's I Love the 80s).

A number of trends have nudged us in this direction, from the increasingly casual dress codes at work to the persistent marketing of counterculture “rebellion” as an easily attainable, catchall symbol for cool. During the dot-com boom, businesses not only allowed people to come to work in clothes they might usually wear to clean out the attic but encouraged this as a celebration of youthful vivacity and an upheaval of the fusty corporate order. Suits were thought to be the provenance of, well, suits. The dot-com bubble burst, but the aesthetic remained, as part of the ongoing rock star–ification of America. Three-day stubble and shredded jeans are the now-familiar symbols of the most desirable kind of affluence and freedom. So why would anyone dress up anymore? A suit says, My mother made me wear this to go to a bar mitzvah. The Grup outfit says, I’m so cool, and so damned good at what I do, I can wear whatever the hell I want. At least when I go out to brunch.

The subjects profiled in the New York article are extreme cases -- upscale, educated New Yorkers with the time, resources and inclination to obsess over style. That obsession, though, can be especially unsettling when it trickles down to (or is forced on) grups' kids:

“It’s hard to say [what the impact of grup-style parenting will be] right now, because most of these kids are between the age of zero and 5,” says Pollack [one of the grups profiled]. “So they’re still . . . I don’t want to say accessories, but they’re still moldable. You can still sort of play with them.” Although, if you’re planning to take this parental approach, you’d better make damn sure you’ve got good taste. “I find myself arguing with dads about the music their kids like,” he says. “One guy was telling me his son was really into Wilco. And I was telling him that’s lame. Because Wilco is so over.”

Of course, there are plenty of places around the country where is it not OK to wear tattered jeans to the office. But for many grups and grup wannabes, this is not a problem... because, between their preference for freelancing and telecommuting, there's no office to go to. In yet another trend we've explored extensively, grups are among those professionals who expect to be able to work whenever, wherever they want. And here might lie the most important significance of the grup phenomenon. Instead of yearning to climb the proverbial corporate ladder (such as it is these days), grups are singing, "Take This Job and Shove It"...

The Grup does not want a corner office. The Grup does not yearn for a fancy title. The Grup does not want—oh, please, do not ask the Grup to manage—a staff...

A human-resources executive told me recently that there’s a golden rule of HR: To motivate a baby boomer, offer him a bonus. To motivate a Generation-Xer, offer him a day off. The Grup, I think, would go for the day off, too....

You see, it’s not that Grups don’t want to work; they just don’t want to work for you. In a recent Money magazine poll about bosses, 54 percent of the respondents said they wouldn’t want their boss’s job no matter how much money you paid them. Fifty-four percent.

Remember, grups are of the generation burned by layoffs of the '80s onward, so they have no reason or intention of giving corporate America their undying loyalty. But will their cynicism and reluctance to play the corporate game be enough to reinvent the workplace for the rest of America? And will it trickle down to workers with less education? Management gurus such as Tom Peters have been talking up grup values for years: passion and the need to have fun and make a difference rather than just make money. Now, it may be more than just talk. Businesses that recognize grups as both employees and consumers in a different mold will have an edge over those that don't.