Sen. Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult Offers Timely Solutions
Our future depends upon raising self-reliant, virtuous adults — a difficult task in the 21st Century.
Do we really need another book about entitled millennials? Or about the helicopter parents who raise these precious darlings? Senator Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis — and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance exceeds expectations. It challenges both parents and our culture, offering compelling and timely solutions.
Sasse has no issue with adolescence. The problem is one of perpetual adolescence — an indefinite period in which youth are passive and aimless. Why is this so common? In part because teens today are used to an unprecedented degree of comfort. Raising kids once meant adding small (but necessary) workers to the family.
Teens today are used to an unprecedented degree of comfort. Our kids may be safer, but they’re also softer.
But our wealth, technology, and digital economy have radically changed this pattern. We now emphasize the protection of our children rather than their productivity. While our kids may be safer, they’re also softer — more hooked on comforts like AC, their own bedroom, an Xbox, etc. They are unfamiliar with manual labor at a time when lifelong learning and flexibility are more important than ever in our disrupted economy.
You can see the problem. The kicker is that the survival of the American experiment is at stake. Why? Because “America’s next generation will be our next generation of rulers — that’s how a republic works.” Fragile teens cannot be virtuous, because virtue implies strength. And citizens that lacks self-reliance cannot be truly free.
The Value of Work
Sasse is not some anti-intellectual relic, pining for the good old days when kids and teens worked long hours in the fields. He himself earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Yale. But Sasse observes that, over time, “institutionalized schooling displaced work and other multigenerational environments as the context and the culture in which coming of age occurred.”
In other words, kids now only learn in a classroom. This makes sense (given our economy). But on the other hand, it’s bad that 18-year-olds arrive at college without ever having done physical work. Familiarity with work breeds an appreciation for work. There’s a sense in which any kind of work makes us more grateful for every kind of work.
If you clear tables at a diner for a couple hundred hours, you’ll become more grateful not just for fellow bussers, but also for janitors and farmers. Such work makes us more grateful for the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the roof over our heads. It gives us an understanding of what the hard work of others made possible. We can consume because others produce. Work builds not just toughness and resiliency, but maturity and perspective.
Raising Self-Reliant Adults
How can we raise self-reliant, virtuous adults, the kind our country’s future depends upon?
Build intergenerational connections. Much of our society is age-segregated, especially at the level of K-12 schooling. Teens today spend almost all their waking hours with peers. They miss out on time with the adults they are supposedly becoming. They miss out on the wisdom and perspective they lack. Sasse recommends that teens volunteer in nursing homes and help care for older relatives to gain an appreciation for aging (and dying) well. To resist the myopia of a teen-centered world, they might accompany a parent to work or change a few diapers.
Travel to see and grow. Teens need to become less “high maintenance.” Learning survival skills, tent camping, and backpacking increase gratitude for a roof and a bed and help teens better understand the difference between “needs” and “wants.”
In addition to developing strength and flexibility, travel benefits teens as they experience another culture. Travel doesn’t have to be international (unless budgets permit!), but can be even within your state or hometown. Put teens “into situations where they are out of their comfort zone and seeing things they don’t ordinarily see. And then, force them to help plan, to make decisions, to reflect and summarize, to discover.” Sasse’s 14-year-old daughter spent a month working on a cattle ranch. Travel leads to independence, strength, and appreciation of others.
Develop literacy. Teens passively ingest countless hours of media. But reading is not a passive activity. It requires attention and engagement. It is key to developing a well-trained mind.
“That our emerging adults take so little interest in reading today is not just sad for them, it’s also a threat to the idea of democracy, which has long assumed the ability to read — and a desire to read. It is not only the content of the book that changes you but the shared community with those who have read it, discussed it, argued about it. Books create communities here and now, as well as across space and time.” Sasse helpfully includes a list of essential books for his kids: God, Greeks, Shakespeare, the American idea, capital markets, etc.
Sasse puts delayed adolescence into a historical context. He helps readers understand just how concerning this crisis is, given our changing economy and our unique time in history. His writing style is sometimes advanced, but worth the effort. Call-out boxes at the end of each chapter feature helpful practical suggestions for implementation. The Vanishing American Adult is a timely and enjoyable read. It can spark a much-needed discussion about how we can help our youth become American adults in the 21st century.
Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor at California Baptist University and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).