Is the pencil, once so ubiquitous that it was used as an example of how economics works, on the verge of extinction?

No less an expert than Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences winner Milton Friedman used the pencil as a metaphor for the free market.

“Look at this lead pencil,” Friedman said in 1980, in an homage to economist Leonard Reed’s 1958 work, I, Pencil. “There’s not a single person in the world who could make this pencil.”

Friedman went on to detail all the different parts of a pencil and where they came from in the world, and how the free market brought all these people together to manufacture it. “It was the magic of the price system: the impersonal operation of prices that brought them together and got them to cooperate, to make this pencil, so you could have it for a trifling sum,” he said. “That is why the operation of the free market is so essential. Not only to promote productive efficiency, but even more to foster harmony and peace among the peoples of the world.”

But between computers, smartphones, tablets, and electronic documents, both pencils and pens are expected to be facing their demise. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella predicted last year that the pen would be extinct in the next decade.

Another contributing factor to the decline of pens and pencils is the decrease in cursive writing. No longer included in “Common Core” instruction in the U.S., cursive writing and penmanship are a dying art—and, consequently, so are the tools used for them.

In particular, fountain pens and calligraphy pens are drying up.  “”What they [calligraphers] do in two hours, I can do in two minutes — and at a much lower price,” says one Indian printer. “Their work is outdated; it’s an extinct animal. There is no way it can survive in this world where I can print out a thousand sheets in five minutes.”

It turns out, though, that pencils—at least colored ones, as well as crayons—are getting a reprieve from an unexpected source: The adult coloring book.

In fact, adult coloring books were singlehandedly responsible for making the printed book industry profitable in 2015, according to Fortune. “With over 11,000 search results totalfive of Amazon’s current top 15 best-selling books are coloring books,” noted Jordan Gaines Lewis in New York, as of January. Overall sales for adult coloring books are difficult to track, because there’s not a single category for them, but the top ten bestselling titles alone sold at least 1.5 million copies last year, writes Jim Milliot in Publishers Weekly.

While some adults actually use kids’ coloring books, they’re more likely to choose more grown-up themes and more detailed art, such as geometric patterns, elaborate gardens, and mandalas. And in an attempt to attract men to the practice as well, some coloring books are coming out with so-called “manly” themes ranging from Game of Thrones to Doctor Who.

As a result, manufacturers of crayons and colored pencils are reporting boosts in sales of more than 10 percent over the previous year, writes Mathilde Richter in Rappler, while countries such as Brazil and New Zealand are actually reporting pencil shortages. Nigeria hopes to create 400,000 jobs by developing a pencil manufacturing industry—proving that there, at least, someone will know how to make a pencil.

Not to mention, adults want nicer pencils. “People are now not satisfied with ‘just’ 36 colors and we are noticing a trend in people preferring bigger sets of 72 or even 120 colors for coloring,” Sandra Suppa from Faber-Castell, the world’s largest pencil manufacturer, tells the Independent. “We are also noticing that people are investing in our highest quality artists’ pencils.” Those sets go for $500 each, by the way.

Some believe that adults are actually turning to coloring books in response to technology. “We’re so technology saturated, that [there is] a craving for the basics: the pen and paper,” Jenny Fenlason, founder of Minnesota’s Ladies Coloring Club, tells New York Daily News. (And for those who don’t relate to that aspect, there is a site where you can color online.)

While it’s typically thought of as a solitary, meditative activity, adult coloring can have a social component as well. As with knitting clubs, people are setting up “coloring clubs” in coffee shops and libraries.

And, in the modern-day version of the refrigerator, people are showing off their creations on social media. “Just like photos taken with our phones, images of both bare and complete coloring pictures are quickly being spread over social networks,” writes Andy Boxall in Digital Trends. “There are thousands of results related to coloring books on Pinterest, and almost all are shared by adults, about adult books. There are YouTube channels dedicated to hints, tips, and tutorials based on these astonishingly complex pictures. Johanna Basford has nearly 80,000 followers on her Facebook page, and on Twitter, many people share examples of their completed masterpieces.”

Coloring is said to help promote relaxation because it’s a meditative activity, according to psychologists, and can help tap into creativity without the stress of actually having to draw or paint something. “Coloring offers that relief and mindfulness without the paralysis that a blank page can cause,” writes Julie Beck in The Atlantic. “It’s easier in the way that ordering from a restaurant with a small menu is easier than deciding what you want at Denny’s, where you could eat almost anything. This is the paradox of choice, and it’s been well-studied—too many options is overwhelming. But with coloring, you know what you’re working with. You just choose how to fill it in.”

So if you’re looking for a way to build camaraderie, reduce stress, and boost creativity before the next brainstorming meeting, maybe give group coloring a try in your office. Meanwhile, don’t count the lowly pen and pencil out yet: The next big trend in books this year for adults is expected to be connect-the-dots.


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