The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis -- and How to Build a Culture of Self-Reliance
Ben Sasse | 2017 | 306 pages
Early in 'The Vanishing American Adult,' his dispatch on what ails the American experiment, Ben Sasse quotes Neil Postman:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, of there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.
Sasse, a former private college president and U.S. Senator from Nebraska, uses "The Vanishing American Adult" not to make policy arguments or prescriptions, but to give deep and thoughtful consideration to the coming-of-age experience ['crisis'] among young people and their caretakers in contemporary America.
Arguing that the prosperity unrivaled in human history which we today enjoy has produced a state of 'perpetual adolescence' in the lives of young Americans, Sasse reminds that more 18-34 year old Americans today live with their parents than with a spouse or partner. Read that again. The once seamless transition of responsibility from parents to the individual as he or she left the home which has colored the human experience since the dawn of civilization has broken down in America which, if left unchecked, Sasse argues, has dire consequences for the future of the American experiment.
For narrative color and to help underline his prescriptions for reimagining American adolescence for its perpetual, media-soaked current form into a limited, experience-rich one, Sasse draws on great thinkers and philosophers like Plato [though he doesn't like him] and Augustine, leaders like Teddy Roosevelt and public thinkers like Arthur Brooks. He does not return to Aldous Huxley, but well could have.
The concept of 'civilized infantility' which is at the heart of Huxley's dystopian 'Brave New World,' is over-the-top and alarmist to be sure, but nevertheless aligns with Sasse's assessment of the sheltered, consumption-driven, tech-enabled youth experience in America today. Huxley's civilized infantility has its subjects conditioned to act like infants in order to be happy In order to achieve happiness. Their desires and needs are limited and immediately satisfied, and problems or discomforts can be mitigated by taking a sort of drug called Soma which, you know, could be a synonym for social media.
More 18-34 year old Americans today live with their parents than with a spouse or partner. Read that again.
'The Vanishing American Adult' and its well-sourced, considered concerns about an America awash in apathetic consumptive behavior driven by postwar prosperity aligns well with Tyler Cohen's new 'The Complacent Class', which considers many of the same questions and is worth a look. I reviewed Cowen here, and Sasse and Cowen recently recorded a conversation on Cowen's 'Conversations with Tyler' podcast which will be worth listening to once posted; check back here.
Sasse's first [but surely not last] book is imperfect; some of his bolder parenting suggestions [i.e. send your kids away from home early and often] feel a little pollyannaish or, at least, unreachable for many Americans; and his odd, disjointed attempt at producing a speech he thinks Teddy Roosevelt would give today which is tacked on to the end of the book come to mind. But on balance, the book stands as an engaging assessment of an issue many of us have top of mind, but find difficult to truly reflect upon: how to raise our kids to be tough, to be driven- and to be complete- in an age of incredible prosperity.