It’s hard not to get caught up in bashing earlier generations. Complaining about “kids these days” is standard practice for people, perhaps it is hard wired into the human genome. The young are the most inexperienced at “life,” which leads them to make mistakes that older generations (in their own mind) would never have made. Such complaining is a generational rite of passage.
At the same time, as Ben Sasse points out, the unprecedented, wide-spread material prosperity that is unique to this post-industrial era is having consequences. When you add the lingering effects of the Great Recession on the lower and middle classes to the rapid and ongoing upheaval in technology to our reliance on an educational system that reflects dated methods and structures and you’ve got a recipe for a generational crisis.
The data does show, in fact, that we are having a generational crisis. It’s not just cranky old people. There are huge number of young people worldwide who are experiencing a failure to launch. They graduate high school, go to college, and return home to live in their parent’s basement for an extended period of time. It’s not like they are working on the family farm, instead they are dragging out the experience of adolescence—a recently invented period where basically physically mature humans have diminished responsibilities.
The seemingly permanent delay of adulthood is having and will have significant societal implications for the coming years. Sasse’s book talks about that problem while presenting thoughtful solutions that are worth considering.
Part One of the volume lays out the problem. He surveys the sociological data, which is abundant, noting that traditional, adult responsibilities are getting pushed later and later in life. A significant contributor to this, he argues, is that society has worked hard to protect children from real citizenship responsibilities, contribution through meaningful work, and prevention of scar tissue. Much of this is well-intentioned, but it has the negative effect of forming people less likely to engage culture. Closing out this section of the book, Sasse grabs onto one of the third-rails of politics: a discussion of education. He challenges the notion that more school is the answer to our growing problem. In part, the problem with the “more school” approach is that it is built on Dewey’s flawed foundation that he intended to replace the nuclear family structure with community schooling. Dewey’s approach, Sasse argues, is exacerbating the problems we are having today.
If Sasse had stopped with his first three chapters, the book would have been interesting, but simply another “you kids get off my lawn book.” Instead, however, Sasse offers some possible solutions for parents and communities in Part Two. First, the Senator from Nebraska recommends generational integration. One of the contributors to the “failure to launch” has been our penchant for keeping people in different decades away from one another. Seeing old people be old and still human helps build compassion, it also helps memory transfer from one generation to another. Sasse also recommends finding ways for kids to work. That is increasingly difficult in our day, which due to some warranted safety concerns and sometimes exaggerated concerns about extending childhood can become a source of political and social tension. He outlines how his family sent his daughter to a ranch to experience hard work and what his daughter learned from it.
The book also recommends toughening ourselves and our kids by simply consuming less. Here Sasse commends teaching kids to value production and not simply consumption. He’s offered it as a solution to prolonged adolescence, but it also serves to benefit people’s financial stability and environmental impact. For those that are able, Sasse recommends traveling far and light with the intention of experiencing other cultures, not just seeing the famous landmarks. In the next chapter, Sasse’s penchant for classical learning comes out as he talks about building a personal library of significant books. He makes some recommendations and discusses his method for building his own list of books. It is worth noting that he intentionally includes volumes that he significantly disagrees with because they challenge and shape his thinking. Finally, the book recommends returning to the idea of America, which was imperfectly implemented, but which has a great deal of power. Mutual respect across ideologies, community built across socioeconomic lines, fervent optimism in the pursuit of happiness are more significant parts of the American dream than a big bank account. We need to remember that.
Analysis and Conclusion
I found Sasse’s book to be refreshing. I’ve got kids that sometimes reflect the malaise of the contemporary culture, despite my best attempts to toughen them. I also see young people around me that don’t have the experiential resources to get out of the nest. Much of Sasse’s book helps deal with that and offers meaningful recommendations.
One criticism of Sasse’s book that has been floated in another review is that it is too work-centric and glorifies the individual excessively. Sasse does talk about work a lot. In part, this is because meaningful work is a key to satisfaction with life. He doesn’t believe in the projections of a workless future, though he believes that workforce disruption is coming and will remain. Helping people become resilient is part of his resistance to that growing problem. Sasse talks about work because our culture thinks improperly about work.
Sasse also talks about individuals becoming more self-reliant. I don’t believe Sasse is arguing for an atomistic individualism, which is an unfortunate ideal in many libertarian circles. The individualism Sasse is arguing for is a communitarian individualism that recognizes the necessity of individuals contributing to society and doesn’t expect the impersonal mass of “community” or “government” to solve problems. In order to have community, there have to be distinct individuals contributing to the common good and not simply living in dependence on someone else to solve the problem. In other words, there have to be people who are willing to jump in to solve the problem and take individual initiative to become part of the community solution.
It is easy to talk about community and interdependence when you are a student living in a largely age-segregated oasis removed from the mass of society. When community consists of playing board games or eating together with few friends who have basically the same needs and concerns you do, it is easy to pontificate against “rugged individualism.” When needs are diverse and resources limited, however, an individualism that consists of someone deciding they will not let the initiative fail or someone in their community starve is necessary. It’s the latter form of individualism—personal determination to make a contribution to the common good—that I believe Sasse is describing. I also think we would benefit from less atomism and more determination to contribute in our American individualism. Sasse could have been more explicit in his definition on this point, but I think his point remains.
This is a book is worth reading. It makes a contribution to the contemporary conversation that is neither shrill nor pat in its complaints and recommendations. This is also a volume that can suffer from being placed in a position of exaggerated significance. The Vanishing American Adult is a piece of the conversation, it is not an epoch defining volume. Like most books, it has a limited purpose. Sasse’s argument is not made to carry the weight of the world and will collapse if people expect it to solve all of America’s problems. It is worth reading and engaging. I think it has explanatory power and some good suggestions. It is, however, simply a tool to point us toward the necessary, deeper conversations we desperately need to have.
NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.