Our standards have been lowered when it comes to intelligent discourse from our politicians. Therefore, Nebraska’s Senator Ben Sasse’s new book comes as a surprise: The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance (St. Martin’s, 2017). Sen. Sasse captures the heart of what ails our country and what needs to be done about it. He pinpoints a struggle for the very future of our country in our failure to raise our children to become responsible and thoughtful adults. He organizes the book around broad themes, such as education, cross-generational relationships, work, consumption, travel, and literacy.
Sasse quickly lays out the problem: “I believe our entire nation is in the midst of a collective coming-of-age crisis without parallel in our history. We are living in an America of perpetual adolescence. Our kids simply don’t know what an adult is anymore—or how to become one. Many don’t see a reason even to try. Perhaps more problematic, the older generations have forgotten that we need to plan to teach them” (2). In particular, he recognizes in young people a “deficit of life skills required for self-reliance” (40), which presents a pressing problem as “a nation of adult-children cannot be a nation of self-governing people” (246).
His diagnosis of young Americans includes characteristics such as “zombie-like passivity,” from the continual presence of screens,” being “bizarrely fuzzy-headed when actual real-world problems needed to be solved,” a “decline of agency, of initiative, of liveliness,” and an “outsized sense of entitlement without any corresponding notion of accountability” (3, 4, 123). The problem lies not with our young people, but with the fact that we “overmanage the lives of young adults” and have “failed to help them learn how to seize the reins and do it themselves much earlier” (76).
Sasse laments that many core values of America are now called into question. In regards to work, “kids no longer know how to produce” (18). When it comes to education, institutionalized schooling has displaced the social environment where a coming of age with increased responsibility occurred (19). Further, more time in school with more money spent has produced less results and little preparation for work and life (70). In a state of prolonged adolescence, “many younger people are now simply concluding that marriage isn’t terribly important, either individually or communally” (42). They also express little interest in religion.
Fortunately, Sasse spends more of the book outlining solutions than he does problems. He even gives practical suggestions at the end of many of his chapters. Providing many examples from his own family life, he calls parents to “tenderly but intentionally introduce[e] our children to the responsibilities of adulthood throughout their adolescence” (55). This includes “building and strengthening character” though the “intentional pursuit of gritty work experiences” (139). He also rightly notes that we need to moral uplifting, as we learn how to control and shape our desires to combat rampant consumerism (170).
He also recommends shaping the mind and vision of youth through travel experiences and greater literacy. For example, travel “offers the young person a broader menu of choices for how to think about life, and then for how to build better habits of living” (184) When it comes to reading, he argues that “America’s future depends on the kind of thinking that reading presupposes and nourishes—and such thinking demands a rebirth of reading” (208). Therefore, he recommends a basic book list, so that we can recover a shared reading of the classics that shaped Western civilization and the “idea” of our nation (226).
From a Catholic perspective, Sen. Sasse demonstrates some familiarity with the Catholic tradition, quoting Augustine, Aquinas, and Flannery O’Connor, but also defends his stake in the Protestant tradition and its work ethic, which has shaped the economic life of our country. To round out the vision of the book, I would recommend reading alongside of it Josef Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture to overcome the limits of this Protestant work ethic and to recover the social legacy of the Middle Ages, which Sen. Sasse quickly dismisses (cf. 160).
Overall, Sen. Sasse has pinpointed an urgent issue and has directed us to important solutions that can guide our families, schools, and parishes to renewal as we form young people.