The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-reliance
(New York: St. Martin's Press, 2017).
Ben Sasse’s book The Vanishing American Adult compellingly documents a dramatic coming-of-age crisis in which the transition between adolescence and adulthood is drawn out for or never entirely navigated by many Americans. A historian educated at Harvard, Oxford, and Yale, and currently a Senator from Nebraska, Sasse issues a wake-up call to this “national existential crisis” in that a healthy republic relies on today’s emerging adults becoming its future leaders (30). Sasse warns that their failure to become engaged and educated citizens constitutes the greatest threat to our society. His work is replete with analyses from multiple fields: sociology, psychology, pediatrics, history, and education. While citing many experts, he liberally utilizes his personal experience, as well as that of family and friends, to elucidate trends in American culture and how to counteract them to raise virtuous adults. Consequently, his book is far from theoretical; most American parents will recognize many of the patterns he describes in their own children or among their children’s peers.
Sasse observes that to confront the widespread work and societal changes greater resiliency will be required of the generation that is coming of age. American workers, like others in the global economy, face increasingly tough challenges. For example, career stability has been on a steep decline, and digitization and automation are expected to replace vast quantities of workers (an estimated 110‒140 million jobs worldwide by 2025). Sasse briefly examines some devastating trends in the emerging adult population which undermine resiliency: more medication than any previous generation, more screen time, more porn, more years at home, more intellectual fragility (think “safe spaces” and “microaggression”), less marriage, and less religious participation. Each of these trends robs young adults of agency, rendering them more enfeebled protagonists in their own lives.
Sasse points to John Dewey, the father of the modern American public school, as one of the chief culprits in this crisis. From the early to mid-1900s, Dewey espoused and successfully propagated an ideological view in which the school, not the home, became the locus of children’s formation, replacing parents instead of supporting them. This perception of school as the center of children’s lives became more pervasive over the decades, until it comprised a real subversion of the proper order in which schools should be an instrument at the service of “families and the deeper and wider institutions of life that are based on love” (27).
One of the most pernicious unintended consequences of the modern American public school system is removing students from multi-generational influences and largely limiting their gaze to their peer group, generally confined to those born the same year. Sasse addresses this problem and the resulting shrinking of experience in a chapter called “Flee Age Segregation.” He urges parents to mindfully raise their children so that they are regularly exposed to people of other generations, thus breaking through the myopia engendered by interactions limited to age group peers. This introduces them to the whole cycle of life—birth, aging, and death—as well as the wisdom gained from elders.
Often both schools and parents unintentionally exacerbate another deficiency in today’s emerging adults by failing to instill a work ethic. By reducing “education” to that which occurs in the classroom (rather than a broader definition which embraces real life experiences, particularly work), many adults convey to emerging adults that their only “job” is schoolwork. Thus, the young are deprived of the character building and self-confidence that hard work imparts. Sasse encourages parents to start giving children chores at a very early age and expanding both the repertoire and complexity of tasks as they grow to increase their sense of agency. One move Sasse and his wife undertook in this regard was to send their 14-year-old daughter off to work at a ranch four hours away. They wanted her to “learn how to suffer…because very simply neither our children nor yours will grow up to be free, independent, self-respecting adults if we hand them everything without the expectation of something in return” (140). The ranch work was a huge growth experience for their daughter, and, as Sasse re-tweeted her experiences, parents and grandparents all over Nebraska wanted to learn what they could do to make their kids/grandkids “suffer” to this end.
Sasse extols another discipline which is on the wane in the U.S.—the habit of distinguishing between wants and needs. Noting that conspicuous consumption is weakening us at both personal and cultural levels, he urges parents to cultivate this discipline in their children and emerging adults (and adults themselves) to embrace it. The person who is free of the compulsion to constantly consume is liberated, having more time and energy to invest in other pursuits and relationships. When members of the younger generation are educated to prize work over money and view work not just as a means to a certain standard of living but as “an offering up of [their] talents for the service of others,” they will realize the dignity of work that gives true satisfaction to their lives (155).
Becoming less dominated by a consumeristic mentality is facilitated by the next step Sasse recommends: travel and travel light. He eschews tourism in favor of meaningful encounters in cultures different from our own, particularly less affluent ones. Such encounters enable us to gain perspective on our lifestyle and ponder which of our commitments are beneficial and which are detrimental to the development of our humanity. Sasse emphasizes that the useful kind of travel for maturation entails work and requires exiting one’s comfort zone, whether it be communicating in another language, eating new foods, or adjusting to different customs. The real traveler (in contrast to the tourist) is challenged to think more deeply about life and consider which ways of living are more correspondent to the truth, beauty and goodness that the human heart desires.
The final life-long discipline Sasse encourages on the road to maturity is reading deeply from great books. This habit not only expands our knowledge of various subjects, but introduces us to other viewpoints, thus broadening our mental horizons. In a sense, this type of reading can be another vehicle of “travel” to other places, times, and cultures. To this end, Sasse urges that each person “build a bookshelf” of five feet of meaningful books which should be regularly reevaluated for their merit. The building of this bookshelf should be a lifelong work in progress. Parents can start creating a bookshelf for a child at birth, constantly refurbishing its contents as the child grows. But by his early teens, he should be making some of the book selections and increasingly taking ownership of the project as he reaches his late teens. A major cultural change is necessary; the average American’s daily reading time of nineteen minutes is not close to adequate to a truly human life which will not succumb to the tyranny of the dominant mentality.
The Vanishing American Adult provides a fascinating, insightful overview of how our culture arrived at many of the current obstacles to successfully achieving adulthood. The book’s biggest weakness is its under-emphasis of the pervasive effects of technology in the current coming of age crisis. Just three pages document the negative effects of more screen time. While Sasse comments on the staggering loss of time, citing a number of statistics (among them that men with less than a four-year degree spend 75% of their leisure time playing video games!), he does not explicitly connect the compulsive screen behavior of vast segments of American youth and emerging adults to the lack of agency he so decries in the book. This behavior is much more than dreadfully unproductive; it rewires the brains of youth and emerging adults, rendering them passive, more susceptible to anxiety and depression, and less engaged in fruitful relationships with others and with reality. Sasse does point the reader to Neil Postman’s two seminal works on the effects of media on American culture: Amusing Ourselves to Death and The Disappearance of Childhood. Postman attributes the disappearance of childhood to the predominance of electronic media (first television as a “total disclosure medium” and, later, many other technological devices) which rob children of their innocence, “adultifying” children. Simultaneously, adults no longer possess a clear understanding of the attributes and the dignity of adulthood and do not help the young transition into it biologically, socially or morally. Postman observes,
Everywhere one looks, the behavior, language, attitudes, and desires—even the physical appearance—of adults and children are becoming increasingly indistinguishable…Without a clear concept of what it means to be an adult, [there can] be no clear concept of what it means to be a child. (51)
Other than this deficiency, Sasse’s book is so accurate in its assessments that a large percentage of American emerging adults would acknowledge that his portrayal realistically captures their lives and the handicaps they must overcome to reach adulthood. Sasse does not just lament or engage in hand-wringing over the alarming state of affairs; instead, he proposes a series of intelligent and necessary steps to extricate our culture from its present morass.
Melanie Danner lives on a hobby farm in the Maryland countryside with her husband, children, flock of sheep and paddling of ducks.
 A “total disclosure medium” is one that reveals things that were formerly taboo to whomever happens to be watching. Things kept from children in previous generations, especially sex, are no longer guarded. These things previously required literacy and the ability to navigate written materials.
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