Perpetual Adolescence: When Coming of Age Doesn’t Come

By John Horvat II Published on June 14, 2017

Parents have always complained about the children. These complaints usually stop when their children grow up and assume responsibilities.

Something has changed with this generation. Many youth are neither growing up nor assuming responsibility. America is facing a coming-of-age crisis that leaves young people ill-equipped to survive in a highly unstable world.

One in three of those between the ages of 18 and 34 live with their parents. Some 30 percent of all college students drop out after their first year. A recent test of college seniors found that one-third could not make cohesive arguments, think critically, or evaluate the quality of data.

The coming-of-age rituals that facilitate this entry are either delayed or skipped. The coming generations are increasingly not engaged in political, religious or civil affairs.

‘Adulting’ v. Becoming an Adult

The problem is not in the young people themselves, but in a growing passivity.

This disturbing trend can be seen in the appearance of the verb “to adult.” This new usage of an old noun does not mean to become an adult. It merely means to do something grown up. A young man that shows up on time for work one day might claim he is “adulting.” He is not assuming adult habits but merely temporarily leaving his perpetual adolescence.

This new “adulting” generation is stirring up a debate. Nebraska’s Senator Ben Sasse is one of many who have entered the fray. He has written a book titled The Vanishing Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis — and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance. He explores the problem of deferred adulthood.

A Great Passivity

The problem is not the young people themselves. Indeed, many young people have grown up and assumed responsibilities beyond “adulting” forays. However, Sasse cites a growing passivity that is pulling youth down in ways never seen in times past.

This passivity is based on a softer perspective on life made easy in times of prosperity. Youth are not being challenged to deal with those important spiritual matters that explore what makes life worth living. The idea of building resumes takes precedence over building character.

The resulting product of this process is “softer parenting.” Children have fewer rites of passage to mark great events in their lives. Sen. Sasse’s list of causes is quite familiar to those engaged in parenting: more medicated children, more screen time, more pornography, less marriage, less religion and community participation. They are also more intellectually fragile and politically correct.

A Failure of Education

Modern education is one big area of concern. There is a lack of vision and direction that haunts the education establishment founded on the defective theories of John Dewey. Sasse, a former university president, complains of a warehousing system in which students are treated as cogs in a machine. He prefers an organic model in which students are cultivated like plants. The system also throws money at problems in the vain hope that things will get better.

Students have lost the tools of learning which help them resolve problems outside the box.

Schools are increasingly reducing everything to technique and testable knowledge. Thus, students have lost the tools of learning that help them resolve problems outside the box. They no longer are oriented toward the good, the true and the beautiful, but rather to a relativism that Notre Dame professor Brad Gregory so expressively calls the “kingdom of whatever.”

Students have a hard time becoming adults, says Sasse, because “we have no definable goal for each child to become an adult.” Instead, there is a piecemeal subject-matter approach “that produces passive rather than active emerging adults.”

Leaving ‘Generational Ghettos’

Educators like Sasse, have many ideas about fixing the problem. Most involve returning to the basics at an early age. Others are refreshingly original since they address new problems unknown in the past.

Sasse recommends, for example, an end to age segregation, those “ghettos” where youth only associate with youth. Everyone gains when young people interact with their elders. The illusion of eternal youth is more difficult when youth connects with the fragility and gentle dignity of age.

Likewise, adolescents need to know about suffering, death and dying. It helps them see that their lives are not perpetual. Teaching children how to suffer early in life provokes questions about life’s meaning and purpose. By learning how to face death, youth can then consider how to die well.

Other Suggestions

Concerned parents need to begin somewhere. The problem cannot be ignored.

Several other suggestions revolve around reviving the American work ethic. The value of long hard work cannot be underestimated. The school of hard knocks on a farm, for example, is worth acres of safe space at a university.

Sasse suggests another practical means to foster maturity by consuming less. The distinction between want and need must be made. Making do with less builds character and provides a sense of accomplishment.

Families should build of a library of great books to expose children to great writers and thinkers. Creating early reading habits makes children become informed adults.

A Debate Has Begun

Such suggestions are all very helpful and practical. Concerned parents need to begin somewhere. The problem cannot be ignored.

However, suggestions Sasse’s do presuppose a framework in which the family is intact. They work in communities that still functions and a strong notion of God is affirmed.

For those outside this increasingly privileged position, a turnaround will be very difficult. The next phase of the debate must address the very real problem of reaching those barely surviving in a dysfunctional society.

At this point, however, there is cause for celebration. At least the debate has begun.



John Horvat II is a scholar, researcher, educator, international speaker and author of the book Return to Order, as well as the author of hundreds of published articles. He lives in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania, where he is the vice president of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.

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