Let’s get this out of the way right off: The Vanishing American Adult is not a political book. So says author Ben Sasse.

Sure, the author happens to be a first term Republican Senator who gained notoriety last cycle by maintaining an unflinching #NeverTrump posture. Indeed, it may be true that St. Martin’s Press may have handed Senator Sasse a book deal thinking that November’s election of Hillary Clinton would have whetted the appetite for Republican book buyers trying to chart a way forward. In that way, this book is a sibling to both Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option and John Kasich’s Two Paths.

But while publishers may have sought the same market share the three books are very different. Kasich’s book largely regurgitates his campaign stump speech replete with warning that America will either be “Divided or United” premised mostly on whether or not it comes together and elects him instead of Trump. Dreher’s book, as has been amply discussed in this space, offers a journalist’s/prophet’s timely prescription for American Christians wondering How We Should Then Live as our culture’s post-Christian flood threatens to carry away our children.

One might think that Sasse would pen a book much like his fellow #NeverTrump elected-Republican Kasich, but instead he has written a volume much more like the non-politician Dreher’s. If Dreher’s Benedict Option is “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,” then Sasse’s Vanishing American Adult might be “A Strategy for Parents in a Post-Adult Nation.” Or actually, more accurately, “The Teddy Roosevelt Option: A Strategy for America to Avoid Becoming a Post-Adult Nation.”

But remember, this isn’t about politics.

Judging This Book By Its CoverVanishing American Adult

One easy way to tell that this isn’t the usual politician’s book is that Ben Sasse’s smiling mug is absent from the design of the front cover. Kasich’s Two Paths does not make that particular design oversight. The image that is featured on Sasse’s cover is that of an American flag gradually disappearing à la Marty McFly on a Polaroid. The photoshopping may leave something to be desired, but the imagery’s meaning is clear: America as we know it could cease to exist unless we address the problem Sasse has identified.

What is that problem? In short it can be summed up in the title of the book’s introduction: “My Kids Need Air-Conditioning.” Our society’s wealth, technology, and educational structures are combining to give rise to a generation that can’t finish tasks, listlessly wastes time, and, is “bubble-wrapped enough” that they think it impossible to sleep without A/C cooling their room below seventy-two degrees. Sasse explains that these stories about lack of initiative and growing sense of entitlement amongst the young “are not in any way about politics” (see, I told you), but that “America can’t endure long this way.”

Sasse’s diagnosis of what is wrong is multi-faceted and includes both chosen and unchosen developments in American culture. On the side of philosophical choices, Sasse targets John Dewey’s largely successful campaign to transform schools into surrogate parents.

[Dewey] doesn’t want the school any longer to be in the handmaiden role, aiding parents in their goal of passing literacy and tradition and deferred gratification on to the their progeny. . . [H]is schools now have the socially transforming purpose of displacing the parents, with their supposedly petty interests in their children as individuals.

As reconstituted by Dewey and his disciples, schools have become more like a social laboratory than a location where individuals are equipped with the skills needed for self-reliant living. Because schools have replaced parents as our culture’s primary organ of child development, we have a culture of diploma-holding twenty-somethings who haven’t actually become adults in any meaningful way.

Sasse names eight markers of becoming an adult: moving out, finishing school (for good), holding a full-time job, becoming economically independent, losing one’s virginity, marrying, having children, and forming an independent household. On nearly every measure, the emerging adults that America has produced in the twenty-first century are doing less of these things and doing them later.

How Luxury Endangers the Republic

But Dewey’s philosophy of education isn’t the only threat endangering the maturation of the next generation, America’s material prosperity (and the mentality it fosters) presents a real challenge as well.

Sasse notes that the very concept of “adolescence” as a distinct phase didn’t really become commonly accepted in American until “formalized public education spread and more Americans began to adopt the wealthy European model of protecting children from work instead of socializing them into work.” Even in the past decade, a noticeable shift has occurred such that fewer and fewer children of middle-class families have high school jobs like flipping burgers or detasseling corn stalks. But when wealthy parents insulate their children from the effort of work while treating them to the benefits of wealth, a distortion field is created.

Hard work produces wealth, which then produces leisure. Over an individual lifetime, this seems both fair and good. But across generations, it leads to people who know only leisure and not the work or character that created it.

With these sentences, this book not only identifies a core source of unease afflicting America’s emerging adults, but also captures the reason that political philosophers have long warned that luxury is the bane of republics. A government of the people and by the people is dramatically dependent upon the character of that people. Our constitutional forms have been said to be unfit to govern anything but a moral and religious population.

(Excuse me, somehow I got sidetracked with politics there, back to the book!)

Because of our affluence, Americans need to take conscious measures to avoid raising a horde of entitled brats who have no understanding of hard work or the character necessary to govern their own affairs. From helicopter parenting to university safe spaces, we already see evidence that America is becoming soft. Sasse is trying to “start a conversation” about how we can turn this around.

Five prescriptive chapters form the core of the book. Sasse calls for child-rearing that (1) eschews age-segregation and ensures encounters with birth and death, (2) instills a ethic that prefers freedom in work over freedom from work, (3) warns of the dangers of luxury and consumption, (4) enables travel (not tourism) to reinforce the first three lessons, and (5) leads to reading a canon of great books. While his suggestions are general and philosophical, Sasse drills down enough to suggest everyone should witness a birth, report about his daughter castrating bulls (and possibly breaking federal labor law in the process), and quote Alanis Morrisette lyrics.

When giving his own personal proposal for what the American canon should be he clarifies that he is not arguing for a governmental decree setting a shared reading list for country. “I don’t write primarily as a senator, but rather as a citizen, as a dad, as a reader,” Sasse explains (how many times do I have to remind you that this isn’t a political book).

Channeling Teddy Roosevelt

By now, you’re probably wondering about the title of this review. It stems from the book’s afterword “If Teddy Roosevelt Spoke to a High School Graduating Class.” It is a stemwinder of a hypothetical address that runs nine pages and that I cannot resist excerpting at some length. Here’s Sasse/Roosevelt imploring his listeners to live the Strenuous Life.

I have thought a bit more about the particular strengths we need in our boys, and I cannot hide the fact that I am worried that you boys are soft. America has a right to expect that our boys will turn out to be good men. In my experience, the chances are strong that one won’t be much of a man unless he was first a good deal of a boy. He must not be a coward or a weakling, a bully, a shirk, or a prig. He must work hard and he must play hard. He should be able to hold his own under all circumstances and against all comers. It is only on these conditions that he will grow into the kind of American man that America needs . . .

And here’s Sasse/Roosevelt expressing concern that virtue to be cultivated.

You should want to be good . . . Cultivate the virtues! I mean “good” in the largest sense. It includes whatever is straightforward and clean, brave and manly. Have courage. Be honest. Exercise your God-given common sense.

Earlier in the book Sasse pointed out a piece of linguistic trivia: “though ‘virtue’ has come over the centuries to mean ‘moral living,’ it evolved from an older Latin term meaning ‘strength.’ The two are inextricably linked.” Sasse wants self-respecting, self-governing adults to know the good and have the ability to do it. And for them to work.

Aspire to be known as a worker–as one who would be ashamed not to pull his own weight . . .

Drink this in: if a man does not work, then nothing can be done with him. He is out of place in any community–but especially our American community. For we are workers. We have in our scheme of government no room for the man who does not wish to pay his way through life by what he does for himself and for the community.

If this were a political book, the conceit of a first-term Senator giving voice to the sentiments of a beloved Mount Rushmore-level President might be indicative of some kind of future aspirations on Sasse’s part. As it is, however, the invocation of the famous Rough Rider merely serves to incarnate what Sasse believes our current moment requires: It requires us to replace our citizens’ softness with strength.

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Posted by Keith Miller

Keith Miller is an Assistant Solicitor General in the Federalism Unit of the Arizona Attorney General's Office. He is married and has four children. You can follow him on Twitter.

  • Being a baby boomer, I’ve thought long and hard about the prosperity my parents shared with me and my sisters. I’ve come to the conclusion that what parents do to and for their children always have a context. But the context from which our parents gave was vastly different from the context in which we received. Thus, there was often a significant disparity between the intention and the result of the sharing of that prosperity. My parents grew up during the depression and knew either directly or indirectly deprivation and want. We were growing up in an age of prosperity that, depending on racial and economic class positions in society, we knew no want. Instead, we learned the word ‘more.’ And that was the word that was suppose to provide our incentive to either continue or surpass our parents’ achievements.

    However, with all that prosperity, the 1960s showed that there were areas in society in which we suffered. Thus, why we should look at Teddy Roosevelt as a source to channel to get us out of our woes, is beyond me? For our parents were more like Roosevelt than we ever would be and we were protesting those shared characteristics. After all, didn’t the Cold War, racial discrimination and our war in Vietnam provide such a significant context to our growing up including some feeling entitled to bully others? And didn’t some of Roosevelt’s policies reveal his sense of such an entitlement? In addition, didn’t many of us feel alone and abandoned when our generation battled our parents’ generation in how we should address what we saw to be gross injustices and threats in the world? Along with that, didn’t we who grew up during the Cuban Missile Crisis expect the end of the world to be a coming attraction?

    And so perhaps us baby boomers who learned the word ‘more’ but felt that we, without their support, had to break from the ties our parents had with the past gave to our kids, that is the Gen-Xers and the Millennials, what we could from one context to our kids who received our gifts in another context. And when we add to that valid lessons that can be learned from Post Modernism, we, along with Ben Sasse see some unintended as well as unforeseen consequences. And again, channeling the historical Teddy Roosevelt will not help. And channeling a mythical Teddy Roosevelt will eventually backfire.

    Let’s get one thing straight, as much as we should not live as dependents when we are capable of more, we cannot live as independents. Why? Because our political-social-economic context tells us that neither category is either healthy or a reality. We live as interdependents with others. That what we do for ourselves is because of a shared effort and often has consequences on others. This truth is often pointed to us by Millennials but we have become deaf to what they are saying because their faults often drown out their message. And having one’s message being drowned out is something us baby boomers can relate to.

    As for the prescriptive chapters, we have to look, again, at our political-social-economic contexts to see if they are fostering the proposed cures. For example, how can we expect our descendants to value work when the system values wealth over work? When Millennials and Gen-Z see the power that those with wealth have versus the exploitation of workers and the volatility of workers’ position in society and learn that work should be something we invest ourselves in rather than being seen as a temporary price of admission? For those with wealth get to decide what workers to keep and what ones to dispose of. Past students of mine who came to school for another education–so there is no no more going to school for good–observed this practice up close and in person. And some of them told me that they even had to train their replacements because their jobs were being offshored. And if wealth has all that power, and a sign of wealth is living in luxury, then how can we minimize the fringe benefits of wealth in the eyes of the young? How can we teach today’s children not to be ‘thing-oriented’? That term is what Martin Luther King called our preoccupation with gadgets, profits, and property rights?

    See, we cannot teach the lessons Sasse wants us to teach by channeling Roosevelt. Why? Because context is a more important factor than role model. And without addressing the context in which we are teaching, we cannot teach the younger people to see themselves more as contributors to society than as consumers. And to address the context, we have to be willing to look in a mirror, other than any magic mirror, at ourselves and the context we have provided for today’s children and young adults.

    • claycosse

      Very interesting thoughts, Curt. I’m very interested in reading this book. But I think you touched on something important. Hard work is good, but we need to be careful not to make it an end or put too much emphasis on “personal responsibility,” because we as Christians know that some of our brothers and sisters can’t provide for themselves and we need to provide for them. Interdependence, as you point out. We are all members of the mystical body of Christ. I really am very interested in this book because it sounds like it explains a lot of what I already knew was wrong with our culture and my generation.

      • Claycosse,
        We should also note the interdependence we have on each other in society.

  • Thanks for the review. I’ll have to add this book to my list. A couple of other factors that I think come into play in the lives of our perpetual kids is how many of my peers have (and continue) to insulate their kids from consequences, and the virtue of learning the value of delayed gratification. Learning from one’s mistakes is an incredibly important learning tool, and yet many parents step in and help ensure that their kids will “never” learn from their mistakes because mommy and daddy will always take care of them. Delayed gratification runs contrary to our want and need it now culture, but most valuable skills (from learning to weld, to learning to play a musical instrument), require hours and hours and of training with rewards along the way often few and far between.

  • Cal P

    Perhaps it is fitting that Sasse picked Teddy Roosevelt. Even though TR went through an incredible transformation during his adolescence, from sickly, frail and skinny boy to robust and virile, he was extraordinarily self-conscious. What I mean that Teddy Roosevelt invented himself through media, posing for shots while he traversed the West, climbed mountains, flew plains, conquered Cuba etc etc. He was the master of the image, creating a larger than life character, one of those “World Spirit on Horseback” that would dot 20th century history.

    So, a cursory knowledge of Sasse reveals that it makes sense to pick an opportunist and a poser (literally) to hold out as a role model. Is that you John Wayne? Is this me?

    • Keith Miller

      Cal,

      You’re probably right that Sasse and Roosevelt are “self-conscious” “master[s] of the image” who create “larger than life character[s]” for themselves.

      Like basically all politicians (or, for that matter, everyone with a social media account).

      I actually do find it interesting that Sasse chose TR as his avatar. The modern conservative movement, of which Sasse is certainly a part, does not usually name TR as one of its chief heroes.

      • Cal P

        Not basically like all politicians! Teddy Roosevelt, when it came to the power of the Presidency and its significance in public life, radically transformed it through his use of the media. And no, it’s not odd that a Conservative would tout TR. Historically, it is odd, but Republicans claim him as one of the greats, the same way they might claim Abraham Lincoln. It’s about a symbol rather than a comparative analysis of policy. But in terms of foreign policy, most conservatives are pretty close to TR, though that’s not saying much if we compared the historical difference between America in 1900 as an emerging world power to America of 2017, the superpower.

        I’m not a fan of Sasse, I think he’s a mimbo who is waiting to become another Cruz.

  • Joel Norris

    To be fair, we don’t offer our kids much opportunity to work hard even if they want to. In my area all the types of jobs historically occupied by teenagers — fast food, car wash, yard work, etc. — are now occupied by adult immigrants, undocumented or otherwise. This has been the case for a couple of decades.

    • Keith Miller

      Careful there, Joel. You’re treading dangerously close to drawing a political implication from Sasse’s theme. ;-)

      • Joel Norris

        Well, I’ll take that as encouragement to go on. The job market is in worse shape than it was decades ago due to immigration, outsourcing, autormation, etc. Public college costs a lot more than it did decades ago because the states have substantially cut back funding. In areas with job growth, housing costs much more than it did decades ago because there are now many more restrictions on building. So it’s difficult for me to take complaints about “kids these days” seriously unless we also recognize that previous generations (and especially Baby Boomers) got a much better deal. The entitled brats are not today’s 20-somethings but instead today’s 60-somethings.

  • Philmonomer

    Social conservatives saying “The kids aren’t alright,” is decades, if not centuries (millennia?) old. Certainly it’s been around since at least the 1960s here in America (remember how the kids went off the rails then?). As a member of Gen X, I remember the things said about us (how we were “slackers” with “no motivation” who just wanted an easy life on Daddy’s credit card.) That was all rubbish, of course. And really spoke more to the older generations anxieties than any underlying reality of how the “next generation is ruining America.” That said, reality really does bite, and I’m still living on Daddy’s credit card. ;)

    • Keith Miller

      I understand how easy it is to write off this as just another lament about “kids these days.” (Sasse anticipates this and acknowledges that the city-state of Sparta was racked by this concern).

      But just because it’s a perennial concern doesn’t mean that warnings of the perils of decadence are inherently false. Rich civilizations do fall.

      • Philmonomer

        (Sasse anticipates this and acknowledges that the city-state of Sparta was racked by this concern).

        It doesn’t surprise me that he anticipates it, as he surely should. Rather, the interesting thing should be his explanation for why this time it’s different. Why is it, this time, the civilization really might fall? (Moreover, what’s his explanation for why this concern repeats itself with every new generation? And, by and large, civilizations only very rarely fall? Why should we listen to him?)

        But just because it’s a perennial concern doesn’t mean that warnings of
        the perils of decadence are inherently false. Rich civilizations do
        fall.

        Sure, just because the shepherd cries wolf 20 times before doesn’t mean there isn’t really a wolf this time (It just means it’s hugely unlikely.) Given that, IMHO, half the book should be an explanation as to why this time it’s different. From what I’ve seen (I haven’t read the book), his anecdotes about kids needing air conditioning don’t even come close. (Indeed, they seem to make the argument, in my mind at least, that it’s really the same ole’ same ole’. The kids these days.)

        Furthermore, while it is technically true that “rich civilizations really do fall,” I think the fact that it is, literally, a reoccurring concern for every generation gives us massive reasons to be wary. Rather, it sounds like a play to the fears that he (and others of similar temperament) honestly have, but history has shown to be unfounded. (Again, why are the young adults now different than the young adults of the 1960s? 1970s? 1980s? etc.)

  • Philmonomer
  • Anecdotally speaking, Sasse-style living as a goal doesn’t seem to be a problem for young people who I know that are church members. Many want to work hard to support families, get married as early as possible have a bunch of kids, coach a Lego League kids’ robotics team, live a communitarian life etc.

    A 19 year old I know got married in a men’s bible study I attended about a year back. He went to a school for missionaries specifically targeting indigenous peoples. He and his wife literally chose a life of global poverty. They only have a high school education and they both work service sector jobs to make a little place for themselves in the modest, charity provided accommodations the school can afford.

    Young Christians without a college degree, even when they have institutional support, are doing something incredibly risky by starting a family. Often, they’re willfully choosing poverty.

    So this brings me to Sasse’s core problem, who he’s speaking to. These are people with means (how many upper middle class republicans drop $20K+, $50K+ on a wedding but wouldn’t give that money to support the early marriage of a couple trying to get through college). These people can do anything and the problem is what they choose to do.

    If only we could narrow a surveyed subset down with some distinctly conservative Christian qualifiers (church membership, desiring marriage, education and family as early as possible), I think we’d find the problem is the structures of ways and means. This includes the posture of upper middle class parents who think that getting started early is throwing your chances in the job market away.

    The worst part is they’re kind of right.

    Before you say anything, I know what you’re thinking. Advice to give an aimless nephew or something like that.

    Choosing a low status trade/enlisting in the military right out the gate is not for everyone and lifetime earnings will be much much lower than getting an engineering degree. When did trade union protections for apprenticeships and big government programs become our go to replacements for actually supporting people who want to do the right thing.

    Physical strength is no guarantee of being above the poverty line even as simply a single man. The idea that anyone can simply “work” and support a family at Respectable Evangelical standards is absurd.

  • OrthoAnabaptist

    I think Sasse is probably on to something, but I wonder if he isn’t focusing too much attention on the current youngest generations… I see the same spoiled-by-luxury and not being able to live without comforts in the baby boomer generation. I’m a little turned off by our older generations (particularly the baby-boomers) looking down their noses at the younger generations when it was their (the baby-boomers) choices and child-rearing that really got the ball rolling in the dire direction Sasse is pointing out. I think those older ones should maybe publicly take some responsibility for that and maybe work a little harder at helping their children turn the tide… instead of golfing and sunning themselves in Florida and living a life of luxury paid for by SS and fat retirements and never-going-happen-again rapid property appreciation and pensions etc (and some of them even have the audacity to try an vote it away from their children/grand-children whilst blaming the kids for the countries state of affairs – talk about double selfishness)

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