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.

The Wealth of Humans - A Review

There is little question that economic structures and human participation in economy have shifted over time. With shifts from feudalism to mercantilism to forms of capitalism to the present blend of socialism and capitalism that exist in most democratic societies today the humans engaged in the economy have adapted to the changes or fallen by the wayside.

Consider, for example, the difference between the expectations for work in the mid-Twentieth century and today. People anticipated working for the same company for the majority of their careers not too long ago. Now, it is surprising when someone stays with one employer for the duration of their working years. The tenure of some employees at many corporations is measured in months instead of years and there is no promise of a pension, only an employer match in a 401K.

Discussions of work and vocation haven’t always kept up with the shift in working conditions, which makes Ryan Avent’s recent book, The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-First Century, a helpful contribution to the discussion of work and economics. Avent is a senior editor and columnist for the left leaning magazine, The Economist. As such, some of his analysis supports ideas more at home in democratic socialism than in a more consistently free market economics; there are several occasions where Avent argues for Keynesian solutions to stagnation and increases in government spending on social benefits. However, overall, Avent’s analysis of the changing workplace in the Twenty-first century is helpful and adds to the literature in the field.

Summary

Avent surveys the topic in twelve chapters in addition to the introduction. The chapters are grouped into four parts with three chapters each.

In Part One, Avent surveys the shifting employment landscape. The rise of digital technologies have served to increase productivity, which has in turn created a glut of labor. This means that many low skilled workers find themselves either automated out of work or in a precarious situation. He continues by discussing the effect of automation: the glut of labor. Avent notes that although there is a real possibility of a short term disruptions in the workforce, either opportunities will open up, people will re-tool for new careers, or some mediating stasis of working hours and income will be attained. However, the potential for a significant societal disruption exists and could be significant if society fails to make preparations for the upcoming shifts. Avent predicts wage stagnation and income inequality; he also predicts that the lower economic strata will demand a different means of wealth distribution in light of their limited opportunities.

The second part outlines the changing realities in the digital economies. With the glut of labor on the market, there is little to push wages higher, which he predicts will increasing lead to calls for government solutions. He also notes that while labor is plentiful, the contemporary marketplace has increased the value of corporate culture over machinery and other traditional capital resources.

Part three discusses some of the shifts of the digital economy. He notes that there is an increase in income inequality among individuals, which he classifies as a sort of injustice. He also argues that on an international level, there have been some nations that are seemingly perpetual winners and some seemingly consigned to a permanent developing status. Avent then argues that the digital, demand based economy leaves economic systems at risk of self-perpetuating periods of low demand, such as has been witnessed in the slow-recovery after the recent Great Recession. His solution to this problem, consistent with his Keynsian presuppositions, is an increase in government spending and stacking on national debt. He does, however, recognize some of the ways government interventions have increased the recent economic turmoil.

The fourth part discusses the economic and political problems of the digital revolution. He discusses the increasingly popular solution for redistribution of a government facilitated Universal Basic Income. He argues that such a solution is unlikely to success in the longterm, and that work has value for enhancing a human sense of wellbeing. He rightly recognizes that the problems of income and economic inequality relate not simply to wealth, but also to social structures and attitudes. Economic contentedness depends as much on the definition of the good life as the actual income. He also notes that the economic conditions and growing instability and insecurity present and opportunity for both the radical left and right to provide populist solutions to problems; a reality that is being realized in the U.S. and in the U.K. among other nations. He concludes the section rather inconclusively with an expectation that some sort of seismic shift will occur, though he doesn’t know exactly what. Given the complexity of predicting the future, this is probably a fair way to end.

Analysis and Conclusion

Overall, Avent’s arguments and analysis are well thought out and nuanced. He avoids simplistic analysis and one size fits all solutions. Though he begins from a Keynsian foundation, he remains critical of certain typical aspects of that system. This is, overall, a well reasoned and informative book.

In particular, his recognition that work is not merely a way to put bread on the table, but a part of having human agency, of feeling valued, and of contributing to society is healthy. Where some who predict the coming disruption of the digital economy see Universal Basic Income as a silver bullet solution, Avent recognizes there are significant flaws in that as a final solution.

Whatever your preference for economic systems, Avent’s book is worth the time to read. He argues carefully, presents his case clearly, and acknowledges basic truths about human nature.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

A Review of the Mythology of Work: How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself

Peter Fleming writes a bitter screed against a version of capitalism and the concept of work in his recent book, The Mythology of Work: How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself. His basic purpose is to prove that, “We work, pay taxes, take care of the bills and commuting costs for one single reason: not to ‘survive’ but so that the governing elite gains its priveleges for nothing. Our labour is designed to provide freedom to the rich. Our work exists in order to subsidize the costs of their existence.”

The book, then, is largely a critique of what Fleming sees as an oppressive class system, where the middle and lower classes are firmly squashed by managers and owners of capital. This is a book that demonizes work and profit. It is essentially a moral complaint, although Fleming denies that in his conclusion. It is not a cheerful book, or one that provides real hope of change. In fact, in the conclusion, Fleming seems to abandon hope that even his critique can change anything. He labels his work inoperative, because he is both benefiting from and participating in the very system that he intends to critique.

Analysis

There are deep layers of irony in this book. Fleming is careful to note some of them in his own conclusion. As noted above, he recognizes that he, as a middle class university worker, benefits from the so-called oppression of others who are in a class below him in the economic food chain.

There are other clear ironies, though. In some ways, Fleming has an exceptionally high view of human nature. He believes that the economic system would continue and human flourishing would exist if only the managers and owners of capital would be replaced by a democratic body of workers. Thus the workers, executing the daily job, could replace the vision and ordering function that managers and corporate bureaucratic methodology provides.

At one level I am sympathetic with him. In previous jobs, I have often felt that I had a better view of the problem and a better hope of devising a solution than the administrators above me. However, sometimes my best solution was the best only for a limited population. The broader corporate perspective required a different approach or there was another solution that worked best for the company as a whole, though it was less than optimal in my small sphere. There were times I think I was right, but others that I was certainly wrong because I did not have the whole picture.

Fleming’s assumption is that everything would work out alright because the workers would make good long term decisions if they were only given the power. He fails to note that in many situations this is not the case. Although corporations sometimes make frustrating choices for short term benefit, the same is true for workers. Union strikes are nearly always couched as striving for worker’s rights or some absolutely necessary good. And sometimes this is valid. Sometimes, however, strikes and discordant negotiations are designed merely to extract the most near term gain for the workers. In other words, greed is sometimes still the motivation, and sometimes the fault is on the side of the workers.

Another basic assumption in Fleming’s calculus is the inherent goodness of humans. Yet, at the same time, he sees humans as pathetically weak. He describes debt as a form of slavery and faults banks for people’s consumer debt. There certainly are (and have been) cases of predatory lending, but the kind of consumer debt that Fleming describes as slavery is largely the result of excessive spending due to a lack of self-control. Fleming seems to argue that there is a deterministic force that is driving people to make bad choices. He ignores the fact that in many cases, these are bad choices that were made voluntarily for short term gain in recognition there would be a later price to pay.

A major problem with Fleming’s view of human nature is that he wants to have it both ways. Workers would make good choices if they had the opportunity despite the reality they have made poor choices when they have had the opportunity. This seems a bit sketchy.

Another problem with The Mythology of Work is that Fleming seems to be jousting a strawman. He has constructed a caricature of neo-liberalism (a term for a free market economic perspective) which closely represents crony capitalism in his portrayal. He assumes that the socialistic U.K. context that he is operating in is somehow an ideal situation according to a neo-liberal.

As someone who resonates with neo-liberal economics, I was not offended by Fleming’s critique because he was obviously not talking about me. It isn’t clear, however, whether he recognizes there is another option out there.

I was thankful that at the end Fleming proposes some solutions that would help resolve his critique. These solutions include: 1. A guaranteed minimum income with a max 1:3 ratio to top earners; 2. More mediating institutions; 3. Government ownership of utilities and other similar monopolies; 4. A three-day work week; 5. Eating less meat; 6. Providing non-monetary incentives.

Some of these suggestions are more helpful than others. Perhaps in another post I will engage with some of them. Some of them seem doomed to fail and unrealistic. For example, the guaranteed minimum income with a max income limit assumes that diminished returns (and unearned baselines) wouldn’t significantly undermine economic flourishing in society. In other words, there are some jobs people won't do for only a little more than the lowest skilled workers make. He anticipates this criticism, and dismisses it, but he never deals with it. Simplistic solutions like this rely on assumptions about human nature that seem invalid given human history.

Conclusion

Overall this is not a cheerful book. Fleming’s view of work is so negative that it seems he doesn’t recognize any redeeming benefits to work. What if our purpose is to serve one another through faithful work? What if the real problem is not work itself, or the system, but our idolization of money and our improper valuation of work? Fleming tries to resolve the problem created when workers identify themselves by their job by eliminating work instead of correcting the attitude. In the end, while some of his critiques are helpful, this volume left me looking for a more realistic solution.

Note: A gratis copy of this volume was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Leisure and Spirituality

There have been dozens of books published on the doctrine of work in the past few years. These books are part of a larger resurgence in interest in engaging the culture in all of life, particularly through vocation as Christians seek to break down the sacred/secular divide in their lives.

 On the other hand, there have been few books published on rest, leisure, and recreation from Christian thinkers. Some of those that have picked up the topic of rest, like Walter Brueggemann’s Sabbath as Resistance, tend emphasize opposition to economic systems rather than presenting a comprehensive biblical perspective on the subject. This has given rise to an imbalance which has left some Christians wondering what they should do with their free time, and perhaps whether they should have any.

 As such, Paul Heintzman’s recent book from Baker Academic, Leisure and Spirituality: Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Perspectives, is a welcome addition to the topic. This is the most ample, comprehensive presentation of a Christian perspective on leisure I have encountered. I do not expect it to be surpassed in the near future.

 Summary

 In Part One, Heintzman surveys current concepts of leisure as well as the actual state of leisure time in the West. Part Two is an overview of historical understandings of leisure. The reality, Heintzman points out, is many myths about the amount of leisure time people have now compared to other times in history are unfounded or rely on mistaken terms. In fact, the concept that we have more leisure time than previous civilizations is founded largely in reaction to the Industrial Revolution, during which time lower classes spent nearly all their time in work. According to Heintzman’s history, many earlier civilizations had more frequent opportunities for leisure.

 The third part provides a biblical background to leisure. Here Heintzman has carefully outlined the texts in Scripture that relate to leisure, including discussions of the Sabbath, the concept of rest, and touching on other work/recreation topics. It is in this section Heintzman connects the whole Christian life, including leisure, to spirituality. His development of the Sabbath shows that in part, the day of rest was designed to be spiritually refreshing, not just a legalistic observance. Part Four then summarizes scholarship on the doctrine of work, laying out a biblical vision for work in a single chapter.

 Part Five critically explores Christian perspectives on leisure, arguing the concept has often been misunderstood. At times, errors relating to the concept of leisure have led to guilt over any sort of rest and recreation. Heintzman carefully and concisely critiques these errors throughout history. He then seeks to positively articulate a positive ethics of leisure, which he builds off of the Golden Rule. The final section, Part Six, Heintzman unites the concepts of leisure and spirituality. He provides examples of ways that leisure is significant for spiritual growth and points the reader to growth in Christ through those things. Heintzman closes the volume with a summary chapter that illustrates his ideal work-leisure balance through the life of one of his mentors whose life holistically blended a sense of vocation and faithfulness, which allowed smooth transitions between leisure and work.

Analysis

 This is the most thorough book on the concept of leisure available. Heintzman’s historical summaries bring together a number of streams of discussions in a comprehensive fashion. His biblical outline of leisure and rest covers the relevant passages in a manner that is fair to the text. This is a book that is both critical and constructive. In short, this is a reference volume that anyone interested in doing scholarship on work and leisure should own.

 Leisure and Spirituality is an adaptation of Heintzman’s master’s thesis. This explains the thorough scholarship, but it also gives the prose a sometimes ponderous feel to it. I would not provide this volume to the average church member as an introduction to the topic. While never laborious, the book is geared toward an academic audience that is familiar with the concepts. This does not diminish the value of the volume, though it does shape the audience.

 In sum, I recommend this book to those engaged in research on faith and work. Heintzman’s book is a key piece of scholarship that will be significant in the field for the foreseeable future. We should be thankful to Heintzman for his thorough and comprehensive portrait of the connection between leisure and spirituality.

Note: A gratis copy of this volume was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.