Where have all the adults gone?
Ben Sasse’s new book tackles America’s coming-of-age crisis.
The late, great linguist, Michel Thomas, whose method of teaching languages built on his students’ intuitive knowledge of their native tongues, was fond of saying, ‘What you understand, you know; and what you know, you don’t forget’. In other words, when we really understand something, there is no need to rehearse it or indeed to think very deeply about it at all. The same is true of what we know of human relationships. We do not need to study ‘loving’ to fall in love, or ‘friending’ to be a friend. We might reflect on our relationships from time to time, but we don’t need to be told how to do them. We are simply lovers or friends, husbands or wives, sons or daughters.
This is why the recent invention of the verb ‘to adult’, in 2008, should set off alarm bells. When the universal and authentic human experience of adulthood suddenly requires its very own verb, or worse, detailed instructions (adulting classes are springing up around the US), it shows that we no longer understand adulthood except as performance.
Kelly Williams Brown, author of Adulting: How to Become a Grownup in 468 Easy(ish) Steps, gives voice to this sense of alienation when she writes ‘adult isn’t something you are, it’s something you do. You are a grown-ass man or grown-ass woman and you can act like it even if you don’t feel like it on the inside.’ But in a healthy society, an adult is something that you are. It doesn’t need to be broken down into four steps, let alone 468, because the actuality of adulthood is knitted into the fabric of people’s lives. They experience it, and internalise it through the behaviour of the adults around them and through the clear distinctions drawn between adults and children. Their experiences prepare them one day to attain the status of a fully fledged, self-determining, responsible adult and, what’s more, it is something they want to achieve.
This is no longer the case today. American society has grown ambivalent about adulthood. It is not just that some of the traditional milestones such as a fulltime job or home ownership are harder to realise. For many young adults, these milestones are less desirable. The adult commitments of marriage and children are increasingly regarded as a burdensome imposition, synonymous with conformity and unwelcome obligation. Indeed, for many, coming of age is understood as the unfettered pursuit of lifestyle – that is, the organisation of life around a set of chosen activities and commitments aimed at personal fulfilment or becoming one’s best self.
Ben Sasse’s new book, The Vanishing American Adult, looks at the state of adulthood in the US, and asks how and why we are failing to socialise a new generation into adults. Sasse, who is a former college president and the junior Republican Senator for the state of Nebraska, argues that the tendency of young Americans to linger in a perpetual state of adolescence has serious implications for them and for the health of democracy.
Unlike other authors writing about childrearing, however, Sasse does not offer parenting advice as such, and though he is critical of what coming of age has come to mean, this is no lurid exposé of the failings of young people. Perhaps most unusually, he does not advocate policy solutions. This is a good thing. Politicising the way that people raise their children or pitting one generation against another is unhelpful and potentially harmful. Millennial bashing or its opposite, the flippant appeals to the older generation to hurry up and die off, are ugly and dehumanising responses to serious political and social concerns.
Instead, Sasse focuses on the informal, ongoing interchange between children, their parents, teachers and other adults, which sets the scene for young people’s transition to the adult world. In other words, how we come to understand so that we know. The way this usually works is that children look to adults to guide them. Adults show them how the world works and how to distinguish right from wrong until they can do it for themselves. The authority of adults over kids is natural at first, because young children are entirely dependent on them, but it soon develops into something much richer: a shared understanding of morality, fairness and cultural norms. Ideally, parents and other adults exercise collective control over the young until they are able to control themselves and earn their place in the grownup world. It is these pre-political relationships that lay the ground for politics and wider social life.
The problem we have today is that these intergenerational relationships have been disrupted, by the breakdown of the institutions of private life (the family, church etc) and by their replacement with new institutions – schools, for example, that segregate the young into age-specific groups and isolate them from the influence of all but school and their equally inexperienced peers. These new institutions work to undermine parental authority and make it much more difficult for adults to socialise the rising generation. As a result, significant numbers of young people lack the knowledge, the resilience or the desire to run society, a point Sasse illustrates with multiple, disturbing examples throughout The Vanishing American Adult. But if there is one area that concerns him more than others, it is the impact of perpetual adolescence on democracy. The problem is not simply that young adults are not up to the task of running society; it’s also that their beliefs about the world and themselves are fundamentally at odds with the basic tenets of the American republic. There are signs that a significant section of young adults today do not value or necessarily understand the freedoms upon which previous generations were willing to stand or fall.
Earlier this year, at the University of California, Berkeley, violent clashes forced the cancellation of an appearance by right-wing provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos. Activists set fires, broke windows and shut down the campus. Subsequent appearances by conservatives, Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro were also cancelled. But when Berkeley chancellor Nicholas Dirks wrote to students exhorting them to reaffirm the values of freedom of expression and tolerance, they denounced him for his ‘thoughtless adherence to the First Amendment’. This rejection of free speech is doubly ironic because only a few generations earlier, Berkeley students were involved in similar clashes fighting for the right to be able hear all political views on campus.
The riot at Berkeley was not an isolated incident. Students on campuses across the US have protested, sometimes violently, to prevent speakers from expressing views they disagree with. In only a few generations American students have gone from fighting for the right to hear robust political debate to demanding protection from it. The current generation of young adults behave as if they had been raised in a foreign country. Indeed, surveys of Americans show that they know very little about their own history and possess only a sketchy understanding of how government works. They lack a basic knowledge of the Bill of Rights. Only two thirds of university students are able to pass the US naturalisation test administered to immigrants applying for citizenship. Nearly half of young Americans believe that the First Amendment is too extreme and would happily curtail freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Many have professed indifference as to whether they live in a democracy. This is not just a tragic failure of education; it also shows that the American character is itself undergoing a profound change.
Drawing on Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous observations of American life, Sasse argues that the exceptional quality of the republic from the very beginning was not the form of the state, the separation of powers, the might of the bureaucracy or even the constitution; rather, it was the propensity of the people for self-government. No one coerced or manipulated Americans into civic or political participation. In a nation in which creed was not handed down from on high, Americans developed a tremendous capacity for self control. Their culture was unique, entirely new and, yet, not made from whole cloth. Americans were free to draw on the legacy of the past as they saw fit, to worship as they chose, to read, speak and publish as they pleased. It was a nation of adults governing themselves by means of their reason and conscience. And this is why the Bill of Rights, as the first ten amendments of the constitution, is essential. It is necessary in order for people to govern themselves. The bill is not, as some understand it, a set of entitlements or privileges doled out to the deserving. If Sasse is correct about our ‘coming-of-age crisis’, America stands on the verge of breaking with government, as Lincoln put it, of the people by the people and for the people, and establishing a new rule of the righteous over the unenlightened.
We do not often speak of democracy and adulthood in the same breath, but perhaps we should. Four decades of myopic focus on parenting has not led to more competent, engaged adults. It has led to the absurdity of ‘adulting’. The hard truth is that the younger generations are facing economic, social and political challenges they can not ‘adult’ their way out of.
Sasse devotes the second part of the book to exploring how we would go about rebuilding a culture capable of guiding our kids into a productive adulthood. At least part of the challenge is that there are very few external pressures compelling kids to develop the character necessary to transform them into responsible men and women. Sasse’s answer is to set out ‘five character-building habits’ or experiences that will help teens overcome the drifting, self-oriented passivity that we have allowed them to fall into.
Some of these suggestions are based at least in part on the experience of the past. Shaping adult character is a task that earlier societies took extremely seriously and Sasse draws on this legacy. His goal is not to replicate the same activities or experiences but to understand the ways they benefited young people in order to find contemporary ways to reap the same rewards. Some of his ‘habits’ relate to peculiarly contemporary problems such as the overemphasis on consumption or the isolation of young people from other generations and the world of work. He also goes out of his way to highlight the importance of reading both as a way of gaining perspective and setting teens on their way to grappling with ‘the big ideas’, which he lists as follows: discover the body; develop a work ethic; embrace limited consumption; learn how to travel and to travel light; learn to read and how to decide what to read.
They are not so much activities – though he does make some practical suggestions along the way – so much as well-considered themes. Each one is carefully motivated and many are downright inspiring. Sasse leads us to tread long-forgotten paths, to taste again the sweet fruit of independence, and to feel the disarming satisfaction of real responsibility. They also remind us – because we, too, are prey to many of the same preoccupations as younger generations – that lifestyle is no substitute for a life lived well. What a contrast to the prescriptive lists that fill the latter part of most books about parenting.
Sasse’s unsparing treatment of young adults has piqued the ire of some reviewers who accuse him of neglecting to mention their ‘strengths’ – they volunteer a lot and did not vote for Trump – or ignoring how tough they have it with the economy. But, as the idea of a coming-of-age crisis suggests, whatever the redeeming qualities of young adults they are inadequate to the challenges of the future. This is not their fault. Sasse does not blame millennials for their weaknesses (though he credits them with the agency to overcome them). He argues that the older generation have failed in their collective responsibility to prepare the young for adulthood – though not for lack of trying.
Sasse doesn’t spend much time going into it, but it is undoubtedly true that parents in their forties and fifties suffer some of the same disorientation as their children. Like ‘adulting’, the obsession with ‘parenting’ shows that we, too, are not confident in what we should be doing.
The great achievement of civilisation is the creation of cultures capable of preserving the gains of the past in two ways: firstly, through institutions; and, secondly, through individuals. Of the two, the relationship of individuals to the past is most important. If we do not pass on a knowledge of the past, it will fade away, or, perhaps more apt for our times, be pulled down on a whim because it no longer fits the moral or political fashion.
The Vanishing American Adult is a badly needed contribution to the discussion of childrearing that has been mired too long in the minutiae of parents’ behaviour or instrumental policy discussions. Although Sasse has rooted his argument in the tradition of the American republic, his insights would apply to any democracy. Indeed, the patterns of diminished adulthood he describes are repeating across the world. Perhaps the most useful thing about Sasse’s approach, however, is that the solution is both necessarily adult- and especially parent-centred. His suggestions are not just practical for the average person; average parents and ordinary citizens are also the people most able to make them a success.
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