The parents of millennials are as much to blame as their offspring for avoiding adulthood and living in a bubble-wrapped world. Laura Vanderkam reviews “The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance” by Ben Sasse.
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For much of its linguistic history, “adult” was a noun, meaning a grown-up person. Only recently has it turned into a verb, usually embedded in a hashtag. Think “Just paid this month’s bills on time #adulting” or “Decided I couldn’t watch Netflix for 8 hours straight and went to the grocery store instead #adulting.”
This social-media trend, says Ben Sasse in “The Vanishing American Adult,” is a symptom of a larger problem. Young people joke about engaging in adult behavior because “ours is now an odd nation of both delayed grown-ups and adult-children who create words to mock the idea that we could ever become responsible, civic-minded leaders.” Affluence has bred a bubble-wrapped world. Mr. Sasse, a former president of Midland University and now a U.S. senator from Nebraska, notices even his own children complaining about the air conditioning only being able to cool their bedroom down to 72 degrees.
Citing statistics on the rise of screen time and declining religious participation, Mr. Sasse argues that the American experiment is in crisis. As a senator, he and his colleagues debate how best to meet various challenges: health care, cybersecurity, job creation. “The proposed solutions to address these problems are meaningless, though, if we lack an educated, resilient citizenry capable of navigating the increasing complexities of daily life.” He calls on parents to put their children through coming-of-age rituals that will help them become problem-solvers who use “adult” as a noun: doing tough jobs, getting to know older community members, reading deeply to understand that the world existed long before any of us did.
“The Vanishing American Adult” has its charms. Its biggest virtue is that it reads so differently from most books by politicians, with their bland bromides and careful clichés. Mr. Sasse tells of visiting a hotel in Greece where the toilet was a drain in the floor and confesses to breaking child-labor laws by having his young daughter work on a ranch. His discussion on whether happiness is achieved through freedom from obligation or through freely embracing a chosen obligation won’t fit in a 30-second campaign ad. His suggested reading list includes Sophocles, F.A. Hayek, James Baldwin and, naturally, the onetime Nebraska resident Willa Cather.
THE VANISHING AMERICAN ADULT
By Ben Sasse St. Martin’s, 306 pages, $27.99
The problem? While arguing for grown-up citizens, Mr. Sasse does something else that’s usually a campaign no-no: putting a giant chunk of the population—namely, everyone under age 40—into a basket of deplorables. Mr. Sasse tries to persuade the reader that he’s not just a cranky old guy (he’s in his mid-40s): “You will hear very little ‘Get off my lawn!’ screaming in these pages.” He grants that the parents of millennials are as much to blame as their selfie-taking offspring for the avoidance of adulthood. As a historian (he earned his Ph.D. in history at Yale), he knows that sweeping statements are risky: “Everyone typically (and usually wrongly) believes the moment they’re living in is the most critical time in human history.”
And yet, fundamentally, that is what this book is trying to argue: that young people are passive and coddled in a way that is more dangerous than before and could destroy all the good that those literature-reading, hardworking pioneers on the Nebraska plains achieved. Some examples: “Kids have only the vaguest idea of how to make decisions for themselves. All that many of them have ever had to do by age 18 is be dressed and in the car at the appointed hour.” Young people “do not understand what self-restraint is.” He laments that his students at Midland University couldn’t even manage to trim a whole Christmas tree properly.
Yet in all eras there are rigorous types and whiny types, and today’s technology quickly spreads tales of whininess. If the problem is truly new, then we need to know when, exactly, things went south. Mr. Sasse is clear that he grew up differently from young people today. Yet he was 37 when he became the president of Midland, where the students he complains about could have been 22 years old. Did everything change in 15 short years?
The idea that people in the past widely exhibited a virtue we now lack seems questionable. Mr. Sasse frets that “in the midst of a radical economic disruption from single lifelong jobs to the demands of lifelong learning for flexible and changing work, solving the riddle of transmitting anew a culture of self-reliance is more urgent than ever before.” But were people who could count on a 40-year job at one employer really self-reliant? Or if they faced modern economic headwinds, would they behave as people do now?
Indeed, the millennial behavior that drives other people crazy can be a rational response to modern economics and changed technology. Mr. Sasse complains about a young employee who wanted to leave the office for a 3 p.m. Pilates class. But in many millennial-staffed companies, flexibility during the day is a given because everyone knows you’ll be logging back on to work at night. Mr. Sasse laments that “as our intellectually insecure students leave the bubble of campus and arrive at full-time work, they are now demanding constant feedback and tender reassurance.” But people have always wanted feedback, and good managers don’t wait six months to tell them what’s working and what isn’t. Supposed millennial “insecurity” is forcing companies to do what they should have done all along.
Mr. Sasse—a home-schooling father of three—does offer some good advice for parents. One way, he says, to think about your children’s training: If you were tutoring Alexander the Great, who would rule many lands someday, what would you want him to know? In theory, America depends on all of us being “fit to rule”— that is, having the capacity to manage our own lives and the integrity to think of the greater good. Then again, plenty of young people may look at today’s politicians and decide that the important lessons were not taught so well in past generations either.
Ms. Vanderkam is the author of “I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time.”
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.