Is world suffering from too many Peter Pans who refuse to grow up? – Tom Pow

Teenage environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg’s mantra of “we children” necessarily begs the question, “Where are the adults?” but we must also ask the crucial question, “When are you grown up?” writes Tom Pow.

Greta Thunberg, right, has highlighted the lack of response to climate change by todays adults (Picture: Stephanie de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images)

Once more Greta Thunberg has been forced to ask the question, “Where are the adults?”, this time in a Twitter response to an Australian journalist, Andrew Bolt, a ‘grown-up’, who has “never seen a girl so young and with so many mental disorders treated by so many adults as a guru”. He continued, calling her “freakishly influential” and “strange”, and you feel, in another age, he might simply have called her a witch. No wonder she speaks with such directness about climate change to those who control our future: “You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to your children.”

But you may ask, who exactly is not mature enough? Those who grab women “by the pussy” perhaps, or those who say “f*** business”, or those who say aggressively, “Why don’tcha go back to your own country?” Actually, that last quote is misleading. It was said to me many years ago by a pupil in London, irritated by my attitude. He was ten. It’s taken that time for political discourse to catch up with ten-year-olds, but it seems we’ve arrived. And we are not alone. Under a banner headline in the Metro last year – “Peter Pan generation refuses to grow old” – we were informed that, “Almost six in ten adults do not consider themselves ‘grown up’. Instead many 25 to 44-year-olds cling on to their youth by going to gigs, playing video games, building Lego and collecting Star Wars figures”.

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My anecdotal research over the past year or so, in asking people – who are adults at least on paper – the question, “When are you grown up?”, usually has the response, “I’m not grown up” or, “I still don’t feel as if I’ve grown up”. One of the interesting aspects of these answers is that the first respondent might have certain determining factors in mind and, of course, these vary from culture to culture as they do between circumstances.

Yet there are those who can point to the exact moment when they grew up: for example, an eldest child, on whom a family situation imposes an early and unwelcome responsibility, or a child witness to one of the horrors of the age. “I still don’t feel as if I’ve grown up”, on the other hand, seems free of circumstance – or of a defining circumstance. It brings us to the slippery world of Peter Pan that the headline invokes.

Peter Pan did not become one of the most famous characters in world literature without having both the attractions of myth (never growing up), as well as its shadows (everlasting limbo). In 1922, JM Barrie made an entry in a notebook that said, “It is as if long after writing ‘P. Pan’ its true meaning came to me – Desperate attempt to grow up but can’t.” More publicly, he wrote, “I think, one remains the same person throughout [life], merely passing ... from one room to another.”

Similarly, the play unfolds in a series of tableaux: The Nursery, The Never Land, The Mermaid’s Lagoon, The Home Under The Ground and The Pirate Ship. Though there are elements of adventure throughout, there is something static at the heart of the play; for nothing (we can see) changes the main character – not his encounter with Wendy, not his victory over Hook, nor absence of the Lost Boys.

The play’s last line is “He plays on and on till we wake up”. But perhaps more than dreams, Peter Pan represents both the power of the imagination and the fact that to hold onto it requires a lonely act of will. Is this Barrie’s experience? Need it be ours? Must a by-product of ‘growing up’ be a limiting of the imagination?

The philosopher, Susan Neiman, in her book, Why Grow Up? – Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age, suggests that, “When we’re surrounded by voices that urge us to play the parts that have already been written for us, Peter Pan seems a rejection of resignation.”

But, she continues, “What if we’ve got it exactly backwards? What if we live in a culture that doesn’t really want grown-ups – for self-obsessed, infantile subjects are easier to manage?” It follows then that, “it isn’t Peter Pan’s rebellion that is genuinely subversive – but, on the contrary, the decision to embrace growing up, with all the freedom and self-determination it implies.”

In addressing the Houses of Parliament in 2019, Greta Thunberg said: “We children are not sacrificing our education and our childhood for you to tell us what you consider is politically possible in the society that you have created... We children are doing this for you to put your differences aside and start acting as you would do in a crisis. We children are doing this because we want our hopes and dreams back.”

The mantra of “we children” necessarily begs the question, Where are the adults? (And where are their imaginations?) In turn, we must also ask the crucial question, “When are you grown up?”

Over the summer, A Year of Conversation, with its partners, Moat Brae and the Super Power Agency, will be asking that question as widely as possible, encouraging children and adults to reflect on how to finish the sentence, “You are grown up when...”

When are you grown up? is one of the subjects for conversation at Tea and Just Talk (20 August, 10-10.45am), part of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Curious Summer Events Programme. Tom Pow is creative director of A Year of Conversation 2019, #AYOC19,