On May 30, at the stroke of midnight, McDonald’s began slipping Super Mario toys into Happy Meals across South Korea. Within three days they were gone, leaving the company scrambling for a replacement. “What we found interesting,” a McDonald’s spokesman told a Korean newspaper, “was that the toys ran out in just one day in our stores located near business-clustered areas … rather than residential areas where you would think there would be more demand for toys.” The demand, it seems, came from a growing demographic in Korea: children’s-toy-obsessed office workers in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, who since the mid-aughts have come to be known as “kidults.”
The kidult phenomenon has led to the opening of adult-targeted toy stores across the country. The toys at these stores don’t come cheap—a Star Wars Death Star Lego set and a die-cast model Ferrari each cost upwards of $500; remote-control action figures can run almost $2,000. One 39-year-old kidult told a reporter, without apparent irony, that he’s cut back on partying and buying clothes “so the toy prices don’t take my life away.”
Many Korean sociologists have speculated that the rise of the kidult is a response to the country’s economic problems. “Korea’s economy was booming when they were growing up,” one sociologist told Arirang TV. “Such nostalgia or reminiscence could give them a sort of psychological satisfaction.” The kidult phenomenon could also have to do with the aging of Korean society: In 1980, around the time many kidults were born, the country’s median age was low—just 22. It has since jumped to 41, making South Korea one of the world’s most elderly countries, and is projected to rise to 53 by 2040.
A 2008 survey showed that the vast majority of Korean young people held positive views of kidults. But among those who didn’t, common complaints included that they lacked “social skills” and risked “losing touch with reality.” Some kidults meet such insults with disbelief. “How is spending $1,000 on golf irons respectable,” one offended man asked in The Korea Herald, “while spending the same amount of money on plastic World War II battleships isn’t?”