The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming of Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance. Ben Sasse (St. Martin’s Press. pp. 274. $16.75 from Amazon.com)
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Referencing a wealth of acquired knowledge and experience, United States Senator and father Ben Sasse offers astute analysis on the culture of “perpetual adolescence” and, what’s more, prescribes simple and thoughtful solutions in his unique and oddly non-political book: The Vanishing American Adult.
A Republican Senator wrote a book. On the book’s cover there flies an American flag. And, well, that’s about the last of the parallels between your cynical view of the typical U.S. Senator’s book and Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming of Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild A Culture of Self-Reliance. In fact, even that one aspect isn’t entirely true: the American flag flying on the cover is conspicuously vanishing. Who’d have thought a public servant could be so artistically symbolic?
The subject matter with which Sasse primarily deals is “our coming of age crisis,” and our slow crystallization into a wealthy, Western culture of “perpetual adolescence.” Having the freedom of adulthood without its responsibilities (also referred to as ‘coddling’), Sasse contends, gives anxiety to the average person, especially when compounded with the other nuanced problems facing Americans. Of these problems, Sasse highlights three:
1. “The accelerating technologies that are, quite simply, going to make a lot of our current jobs disappear
2. The coming-of-age crisis that has been the central subject of this book, which I believe has resulted in a generation of kids who will have a tough time dealing with #1, not to mention playing their roles as active, engaged citizens; and …
3. The fact that in times of economic disruption, we invariably see the rise of people who offer quick fixes, nativist campaigns, and more centralized power as a way out.”
The trajectory of today’s increasingly passive youth (company with which—full disclosure—I have only recently begun parting), and of the aforementioned problems facing our nation, are cause for pessimism to say the least. We need a hard-working and stoic youth to address the job marketplace where “College graduates will change not only jobs but industries an average of three times by age thirty [emphasis added].” Sasse discontinues his pessimism, however, upon his diagnosing of the problems. He elects, instead, to focus his energy toward offering solutions. “I am an optimist and I believe that America’s best days lie ahead,” says the proud Nebraskan.
Moreover, Sasse does not limit his critical observations on the adults of tomorrow to mere trope, nor does he blame any one generation or group; rather, he shares statistics whenever possible to verify his position on the situation. One such statistic, per a study from Notre Dame researcher Christian Smith, is quite alarming: over half of “emerging adults” (18 to 23-year-olds) agree “that their well-being can be measured by what they own, that buying more things would make them happier, and that they get a lot of pleasure simply from shopping and buying things.”
Admirably, though the facts offer plenty opportunity for fatalism, Sasse never deviates from his optimism. It isn’t blind either. He has seen firsthand the effect of his advice on his own kids and does not hesitate to share both his successes and failures. Most notably, however, at no point is Sasse’s advice or diagnosis partisan. He contends in interview after interview, podcast after podcast, book signing after book signing that “it’s not a political book.” After hearing him speak, despite his occupation, it is easy to believe him. And upon reading the book, you will feel compelled to vouch for the book’s nonpartisan nature as well.
The reason I say this so emphatically is because it’s important.
Each chapter ends with concise suggestions for the aspiring or current parent. Sasse does well to avoid donning himself and his wife infallible parents, as easy as that prospect is to achieve with such a book. But then again, The Vanishing American Adult serves as much more than a parenting book, simultaneously selecting and prescribing solutions to the problems of tomorrow based on a perceptive critique of what has and has not worked for American culture since its founding. It does so with the grace and charm detectable in Sasse’s everyday demeanor, featuring at least two sub-chapters undoubtedly unlike any found between the bookends on your shelf today.
The first is “Lessons from the Ranch,” wherein Sasse recalls his and his wife’s decision to send his 14-year-old daughter to work on a ranch in Nebraska, with the hope of teaching her to better appreciate the value of hard work. In a telling display of how unique a politician we have in Sasse, the Nebraskan Senator published his daughter’s daily texts (#FromTheRanch) on Twitter:
“Crazy ‘learning’ day: Gave vaccine shots + had my arm up both cow &bull butts (eww & EWWWW!)”
[14y/o text-tone implied]
— Ben Sasse (@BenSasse) March 22, 2016
The second-most uncharacteristic (for a Senator) aspect of the book was the eight-page hypothetical commencement address from who but Theodore Roosevelt. Bordering on cheesiness at first and seeming a little too much like Sasse uses Roosevelt’s voice as a political shield for what’s really the most political portion of the book (fitting for the afterword), the address is nonetheless a creative and effective cap to a whirlwind of exceptionalism from Sasse throughout the book.
It is with great pleasure that I report to you the widespread and resounding acclaim with which this book has been met. Even the praises of Democratic Senators Corey Booker and Tim Kaine are found on the inside of the book’s cover.
Naturally, though, as there are on the right, the Left has its hecklers, programmed to oppose any work donning a connection to the Republican Party.
Among the derision showered on Sasse was the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg’s snide contention that Sasse is always “making sure we know he has read the ancient philosophers.” Rosenberg’s critique is telling, as Sasse—a historian with degrees from Yale, Harvard, and St. John’s—quotes with grace and authority throughout, even inspiring your Editor-in-Chief to make a list of worthwhile reading and research. Unwilling was this “pop culture” blogger to break her streak of interpreting the world in a ‘woke’ fashion. Whatever time she spent reading the book, none of it was wasted thinking about the work’s merits. It was the product of a Republican Congressman after all! Rosenberg, in the all-too-typical fashion of many on the far Left, is either entirely unwilling to challenge her own beliefs or is dismissive of the accumulated knowledge of humans-passed, preferring, rather, sophomoric and baseless ad hominem attacks.
Refreshingly, however, Sasse refuses to aid and abet the destructive idealism to which Rosenberg and others on the Left cling. At the same time, Sasse forgoes any derision of his counterparts in the Senate or hecklers in the media, aiming instead to find, strike, and excite common ground between every caring American. These traits, in themselves, make this book a must-read.
America inevitably needs a book like this to return to our shared values as we did under the founders, under Lincoln in the face of Southern insurrection, and under Reagan in the face of a tide of Soviet collectivism. Only our shared values—those of an informed republic, free and eager to work hard and pass the habit on to the next generation—can solve the aforementioned issues in consequential fashion. The Vanishing American Adult is a straightforward, yet simultaneously enlightening collection of thoughts. Your Editor-in-Chief recommends the read.
— Nick Geeslin is Editor-in-Chief of The Arch Conservative.