Is the American Adult Vanishing?

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.

Summary

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.

The Value of Empathy in the Workplace

I’m amazed how many years it took me to become aware of it. Even as a leader, I didn’t recognize the nature and significance of the difficulties in the daily lives of other people at work. Fifteen years into my working career and I think I’m finally starting to figure out what empathy is and why it matters.

I now work for a Christian organization with fewer than a thousand employees. Because we are a distinctively Christian community, our Human Resources department, when requested, shares prayer needs with all the employees through email. I’m amazed because nearly every week we are notified that someone’s family member is seriously ill or dying. These are major life events that sap people’s creative energies, distract from their work, and could even give them a sense of hopelessness.

Even more significantly, I am becoming increasingly aware as I get older of the profound struggles in the lives of many co-workers. When I was younger I assumed everything was alright unless someone told me otherwise. However, as I work in a community of Christians, I find out that apart from the big events that get broadcast through e-mail, there are dozens more “little” crises in people’s lives. For the most part, I was oblivious to these concerns when I worked outside of Christian higher education.

Some people are struggling with anxiety, some with the effects of ongoing cancer treatment, some with children that seem intent on getting into trouble at school. That stress sends ripples through a person’s whole life, including their work. There are a million of needs and struggles. If we’re not careful, we’ll miss them and never take the opportunity to be an encouragement to the people around us.

In organizations with a mission built upon Christian principles, it is easier (sometimes) to stop and pray and to use Scripture to encourage one another. It is also more likely, based on my experience, for people to be willing to discuss their struggles with others at work. However, looking back to the years that I worked in secular environments, I can think of a number of opportunities that I missed to be a better leader and a better friend. In reality, taking a few steps to be more empathetic would have made a big difference in my ability to exemplify the gospel to my coworkers.

Be Aware of the Hurting

The most significant step in becoming a better coworker is to simply be aware of the struggles in people’s lives. This starts by recognizing the humanity of the people that we work with.

Even theologians with a solid understanding of the doctrine of humanity need to be intentional to see the uniqueness of each person at work. My coworker isn’t just a line item on my budget with a productivity quota, she is a human with a family, medical needs, and hopes for the future. If I focus on whether she’s accomplished the proper number of tasks on the to-do list instead of whether she’s flourishing as a human, I’ve missed the mark as a leader.

There were many instances I can recall when I was very critical of peers who didn’t make deadlines or weren’t as successful at their work. I had a critical spirit that exalted myself because I stayed at work late or achieved a better result. Looking back, based on conversations I had at the time, many of those people were struggling with concerns at home with their families. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to do well at their work, it was simply that their work wasn’t as important as the other issues they were wrestling with.

I would have been more Christ-like had I been consistently concerned for their wellbeing as a person. Being effective at work is important, but it isn’t the only thing. It also may have helped people to be more productive had they known that others at work cared and were concerned about more than just the bottom line.

Be Compassionate Toward the Hurting

Simply recognizing that the world around is hurting is insufficient. It’s roughly the equivalent of telling the hungry, poorly clothed person and telling them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled.” (James 2:16).

US Government work used by CC License: http://ow.ly/bJWK309wYOv

US Government work used by CC License: http://ow.ly/bJWK309wYOv

In the workplace, most often the problem will not be a lack of food or clothing. The contemporary equivalent of brushing off physical needs is to address someone’s medical condition or concerns for their family by saying, “I’m sorry about that. Do you think you can get this report done on time?”

Obviously, sometimes there is work that just needs to get done. However, it may be that sharing another person’s assignment or covering a shift for them is exactly the sort of relief they need. Going beyond acknowledgment that someone has a problem and seeking to relieve it is a step in the right direction. Even if they don’t accept the offer, the willingness to help means more than simply offering your “thoughts and prayers” and “oohing” at the right moments in conversation.

Be Concerned with the Flourishing of Others

There are many people more aware and compassionate that I am. Many of them are not Christians. This is something that I’ve come to expect because common grace is real and, frankly, I’m naturally a selfish person.

However, as a Christian, I bring a vision of holistic flourishing to my workplace that others will lack. If I can beat down my introversion and task-oriented, deadline-focused nature, I can actually apply the knowledge of the good news about a savior who came to redeem and restore all of creation for the good of humankind and for his own glory. There’s a deeper message of hope and wellbeing in the gospel that only Christians can share.

We know the end of the story. We know that creation is groaning with birth pangs in anticipation of being set free from the bondage of sin and decay. (cf. Rom 8:18-23) We have a hope that should enliven us and cause us to desire to meet the needs of those we work in their daily struggles, pointing them toward redemption in Christ.

Conclusion

 Our workplaces are awash with a flood of private distress. As we do our work, we can serve others by doing our jobs excellently. We can also serve those we work with by demonstrating empathy for their concerns. Christians ought to pursue the good of people, not simply the metric that bolsters the bottom line.

As we move from simply recognizing the needs of others to offering to provide help, we open up opportunities for demonstrating what redemption looks like. Many people are carrying the weight of heavy burdens today. They need to know what redemption looks like more than they need a lesson in productivity. Christians can provide that, which is a key part of how we live out our faith through our work.