The Vanishing American Adult (Ben Sasse)

The Vanishing American Adult, Ben Sasse, 2017 – The thesis of this book might be summed up as follows: Young Americans are not maturing and becoming contributing citizens at the rate that is needed, and something needs to be done about it. Otherwise, the future of the American republic doesn’t look bright.

Here’s a recap of the supporting evidence: Kids log too much “screen time” and don ‘t spend enough time reading worthwhile books. They are brought up to be consumers, not producers, with the operative premise being that they can have pretty much whatever they want (not just what they truly need). If anything goes wrong, there is typically someone around to fix it – parents, teachers, service people, etc. Kids don’t spend much time learning to solve problems on their own or helping others as opposed to pursuing their own desires.

Most of their social interaction is with peers in the same age cohort; they spend very little quality time with older people who could share their painfully acquired experience of what life is about and how to make the most of it. Most kids aren’t physically active, and they don’t perform hard jobs like their elders did. It they travel, it is likely to take the form of touring (passive) versus exploration (active).

They progress through the school system on a standardized basis, basically being taught to pass the tests but not becoming truly proficient at anything. There isn’t a clearly defined goal, such as learning to be a productive member of society versus simply moving to the next rung of the educational ladder. Very little of the curriculum is devoted to the history of this country and the rationale of its political and economic system.

There is growing resistance to the expression of controversial or unpopular views on college campuses, lest such activity make some students feel uncomfortable. Safe spaces – trigger warnings – free speech permitted only in designated free speech zones. No wonder polls show students are increasingly open to socialism, which sounds like a well-meaning system despite ample evidence that it yields terrible results.

Young Americans stay in school longer – live at home longer – have trouble finding satisfying and rewarding work - marry later. In short, the norm of young adults being on their own by their early 20s is obsolete. The lifetime employment model is also on the way out, which adds to the uncertainty about what young Americans are being educated for. And they may not be able to count on “the golden years” at the end either, as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid (for long-term care), etc. will not be affordable in the long run.

Although many of these points are well-known, Sen. Sasse has done a fine job of tying them together in an overarching issue. How can we help young Americans come of age and become productive members of society versus mere consumers of society’s wealth? And he makes a good case that government programs aren’t likely to provide a solution. The basic need is to nurture the rising generation, and that’s not something that governments with one-size-fits-all programs are good at.

There are many suggestions for parents who may be wondering how they can help. Getting kids to read books (e.g., 100 per year) – giving them meaningful responsibilities - sending them off on real life adventures when they are ready. And many of these ideas are user-tested, including by Sen. Sasse and his wife who homeschool their children

Note, however, that future problems can’t necessarily be solved by reference to past experience. The world of 50 years ago was very different than the world today, and the pace of change is accelerating. There simply isn’t going to be as much manual labor as there once was, particularly as the effects of “artificial Intelligence” on the economy are fully realized, and it may not be easy to keep people on the move in the great outdoors or help them to acquire knowledge that will be useful for a lifetime.

As an unexpected bonus, the book ends with an imaginary speech by Teddy Roosevelt at a high school graduation.. The message makes a lot of sense, but it sure wouldn’t be what high school students have grown accustomed to hearing of late! (posted 5/16/18)
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