Why Are Full-Grown Adults So Obsessed with Going Back to Summer Camp?

Corporate or not, adult summer camp is a bastion of nostalgia for a simple time when there was no distinction between real life and the one mediated by social feeds, mobile apps, and messaging systems.

Aug 11 2015, 5:33am

Summer campers circa 1984, when millennials were still kids. Photo via Flickr user Hunter Desportes

When, at the age of 28, Levi Felix decided he wanted to go back to summer camp, he did what most Americans do when they need an answer: He consulted Google. It was 2012 and the search term "summer camp for adults" yielded few results, save for several senior citizen retreats in the woods—not exactly what Felix, an Oakland-based entrepreneur, had in mind. He'd recently left a high-profile tech job to found Digital Detox, a company that leads yoga and meditation retreats—and then he had a revelation.

"I realized on one of the retreats, people were on typewriters and they were face-painting each other and they brought arts-and-craft supplies," said Felix, now 31. "I found that when people were playing and being silly and making art and making music, they were more present and more able to be fully kind of themselves—to be their kid version. That's when I was like, 'Oh shit, this is like summer camp!'"

In 2013, Felix launched Camp Grounded. Two years later, adult summer camps are everywhere. A Google search lists dozens of new businesses with flashy websites and whimsical branding: Camp No Counselors, Camp Bonfire, Camp Throwback, Soul Camp, and the minimally-named CAMP, to name just a few. Netflix's new Wet Hot American Summer series, which derives much of its comedy from its casting of 40-year-olds as teenagers, has only added to this mass nostalgia for summer camp.

It's not just summer camp: There's a preschool for grown-ups in Brooklyn; around the country, people long out of high school are attending proms; a coloring book marketed for stress management sits atop Amazon's best-seller list. Products and packaged experiences that would have previously been regarded as novelties or gimmicks are now fueling an industry that thrives on the reenactment of childhood. And the boom shows no sign of slowing down.

Video by Camp Grounded via YouTube

Frank Furedi, a former sociology professor at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, and a frequent commentator on youth culture, has watched the "global phenomenon" of kids' activities for grown-ups flourish over the last decade. "When I first started writing and talking about this, people used to tell me, 'Frank, this isn't really happening, you're exaggerating, this is a small niche minority,'" Furedi said. "Whereas now when I talk about these things"—things like School Disco, a popular London club night where the dress code is a school uniform—"a lot of people lash out at me and say, 'What's wrong with it?'"

For years, buzzwords like "Peter Pan syndrome," "boomerang kids," and even simply "millennials"—used as shorthand for tech-addicted adult-toddlers everyone loves to hate—have dominated headlines bemoaning a generation royally screwed by the Great Recession. And as the job market has improved over the last five years, growing up seems to have only become even more undesirable. In the US, 18 to 34 year-olds are less likely to be living on their own and setting up their own households today than they were during the height of the unemployment crisis in 2009, according to a Pew Research Center poll released last month.

Furedi believes the recession, or at least the concept of it, has become a kind of crutch for 20-somethings averse to spending nine-to-five hunched over a cubicle desk. "It's not like we're living in the middle of the 1930s Depression," he said. "I think there's an inflated sense of injustice and an inflated sense of how difficult this is, when in fact, when you look at people in their mid-20s, they are reasonably pampered, especially in the middle classes." Meanwhile, young people who have embraced the risks of entrepreneurship and start-up culture have turned to summer camps and other child-like ventures as a form of structured playtime.

An ambitious self-starter, Adam Tichauer, like Felix, is part of that group. The 32-year-old found himself on the fast track to burnout after founding a short-lived music streaming service called PlayButton. "I had the board always coming down on me and my investors were never happy with sales," Tichauer recalled. That all changed when he switched gears to launch a new company last summer: Camp No Counselors, billed as a "sleepaway camp for adults." The work is just as demanding, Tichauer said, but now he receives gift bags and hand-written thank you notes from happy campers—literally.

At Camp No Counselors, traditional kids' camps are rented post-season and revamped into woodsy getaways complete with open bars, themed parties, and cafeteria food that's more steak and kale than Sloppy Joe's and tater tots. Kid-size mattresses get swapped out for fuller, adult ones, but at the end of the day, the cabins are still sleeping anywhere from ten to 20 grown-ups on bunk beds.

"We really want people to choose their own adventure," said Tichauer, running down a list of popular activities like archery, zip-lining, and Capture the Flag. "That's the good thing about camp is you can really make it what you want. If you want to read a book and drink rosé by the lake, you can do that."

Summer camp is the place where everybody has the possibility of being cool. - Levi Felix

That is, if you can afford it. Registration for Camp No Counselors runs between $500 and $575 for a three-day weekend. Prospective campers must by submitting their Instagram handle and answering a series of questions such as "What did you do for your last birthday?" If someone answers that he celebrated at a strip club in Las Vegas, for example, he's probably not a good fit for Camp No Counselors, Tichauer said. The questionnaire and social media background check are designed to "curate" the crowd, he explained, to create an equal gender balance and ensure that campers don't all work in one particular industry.

But Felix, whose camp nickname is "Fidget," thinks this type of curation is exclusionary. "For me, like, that's the opposite of what summer camp should be," he said. "What I believe is summer camp is the place where everybody has the possibility of being cool. They don't care if you're the cool kid at school or the dorkiest kid or if you have the weirdest outfits."

Tichauer estimated that 65 to 70 percent of applicants get accepted to Camp No Counselors, which launched in New York and has since expanded to Los Angeles, Chicago, and Nashville. "The majority of people that are coming to our camps are millennials, and millennials are putting experiences and memories more important than objects or things," he said. "With our little incremental incomes that we have as millennials, people are buying that shared experience with their friends rather than buying that pair of jeans or a purse."

That might be true, but why spend the money on a grown-up version of summer camp instead of just a normal vacation? According to Michael Freeman, a psychiatry professor at University of California, San Francisco, it might have something to do with the generation's underlying desire to unplug from technology and reconnect IRL—an interaction that's increasingly been replaced by digital screens.

"Young people have this syndrome that they call 'fear of missing out,' but you're not really missing out on anything," said Freeman, adding that some people have completely forgotten how to have meaningful experiences offline. "I think there's a yearning and an alienation and a disconnection and a sense of being lost."

"I have clients of mine that go to Digital Detox, and they come back and it's like, they were able to talk about something like a challenging part of their life for like 30 minutes and somebody listened and it's like the most amazing thing that ever happened," he said. "What happened to friends? Didn't we used to do that with friends?"

Freeman said he's skeptical of flashy, Silicon Valley-designed retreats that offer a temporary life disruption in exchange for a resort fee. "I think what has been figured out is that the internet is so rewarding and so kind of addictive that people are willing to put up with the pop up ads to get the service for free, and as a result of that, it just infiltrates into life," he said. "They figured out the face-to-face can be packaged and commercialized, and now you have your summer camps."

Indeed, Tichauer claims that operating Camp No Counselors isn't all that different from running PlayButton, or any other tech start-up. "While we are disconnecting and we are having fun, it's about creating something that people want," he said. "It's about creating a product and it's about creating an infrastructure and scaling that infrastructure up so it becomes a real business and it affects a lot of people."

The business model appears to have widespread appeal. Indeed,while Camp Grounded initially attracted people from the tech scene because of its proximity to Silicon Valley, it has since transcended age, geographic location, and industry, according to Felix, who claims the company has a 40 percent return rate among campers. The camp will hold its first session in North Carolina later this month, and is looking to expand to campgrounds in Japan and India in the coming years. In the meantime, there's already a waiting list for next summer's flagship camp in Mendocino County, California, with bunks going for nearly $600 for the weekend. For the sake of immersion into nature, Felix said, booze and electronics are banned.

The whole thing strikes Furedi as odd. "If you compare these kinds of experiences to the beginning of the counterculture in California when you went away into these retreats and everything," he said, "In those days, it was all about doing drugs and LSD and mescaline and basically going out of your mind for a couple of days and then on Monday getting back to work. It's interesting how that kind of culture has mutated into this very safe, branded, and real template-focused, almost like bite-sized therapy that you kind of manufacture and people just buy into it."

At Camp No Counselors, though, the drinks flow freely—the only overarching goal, Tichauer said, is leisure. "There's nothing underneath it. Let's just have some fun and forget about being serious," he added.

Still, Camp No Counselors and Camp Grounded share one general guideline: Don't start any conversations by talking about work. "In New York or LA, you go to a bar, you meet someone, and it's like, 'Hey, what do you do?'" said Tichauer. "But if we don't have that guard up and if we don't immediately judge people and put them in a box, then maybe we'll give them a second chance or the benefit of the doubt."

Camp Grounded has discouraged career-related dialogue to the point that the camp has created a new kind of language to avoid it—and also to mock it. Camp activities—everything from truffle-making to potato-carving—are no longer workshops, but "playshops." FOMO-free playshops, to be exact. Inboxes are cubbyholes, where campers can leave each other love letters, doodles, coupons for ice cream, and even hand-written spam, intended to imitate email phishing. A message board at camp is just a roll of butcher paper with notes scribbled on it, and scrolling down means tearing the notes and hiding them in mason jars for someone else to find. And instead of Google, Camp Grounded uses "human-powered search"—a wall of construction paper where campers can post and answer typewritten questions.

"People will go and write, 'Who's that guy in that movie?' or 'Is there a difference between Himalayan sea salt and normal sea salt?' or things you normally would ask Google," said Felix, who runs Camp Grounded with a staff of eight, including his fiancé and brother. "Let's say you ask the question about Himalayan sea salt. You might go on Monday and see a thread of 50 questions or notes about people debating like they do on the internet."

"At camp, we just try to challenge ourselves and everyone else to say, 'Let's reclaim language and let's reclaim words that feel human rather than reclaiming what a few people in hoodies thought we should use on the internet," he continued, adding that he encourages campers to think twice about what Facebook jargon really means: words like "friending," "like," and "share,"—and even the term IRL—are discouraged.

Adults play a human-version of Hungry Hungry Hippos at Camp No Counselors. Video by Camp No Counselors via YouTube

Corporate or not, adult summer camp is a bastion of nostalgia for a simple time when there was no distinction between real life and the life mediated by social feeds, mobile apps, and messaging systems. Similar to adult preschools, coloring books, and proms, camp is a familiar, wholesome remedy for people "feeling uncomfortable with their relationship with technology," Felix said. It's an uneasiness that almost anyone who grew up with a screen name or avatar can relate to, whether it's boomerang kids live with their parents or tech CEOs who live in their offices.

Follow Jennifer Swann on Twitter.

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