Book in Review: The Vanishing American Adult


As a 24 year old, I have long observed a general lack of maturity both in myself and in much of my generation. We may be able to get married, have children, and even purchase homes—but the vast majority of us lack traditionally “adult” qualities. This can be observed in the amount of money we spend on a monthly basis, the amount of time we spend playing video games and scrolling through social media, the avoidance of responsibility, the lack of work-ethic, the fear of long term commitment, the general softness and entitlement that characterizes us, the “self-centric” view of life we possess…etc. I could go on, but I will spare you.

We, and I include myself in this pronoun, have a big problem. We are not growing up. And that means America has a problem.

Senator Ben Sasse writes The Vanishing American Adult to address this problem and to give a few keys to break free from this forever young, “Peter Pan” syndrome. His tone throughout is not the “get off my lawn” old man rhetoric that you might expect, however. Rather, Sasse writes with a genuine concern of our children remaining children, and as such, remaining unable to carry the torch of freedom from previous generations. If it indeed true that “freedom is only one generation away from extinction”—we had better address the problem, and fast.

Sasse’s solutions are not three easy, formulaic steps to “grow up.” There is no secret breakthrough that will magically unlock the prisons of perennial adolescence. His “solutions” (if they can be called that) are the oddly familiar, “old school American” wisdom that we need to more recapture than reinvent.

He writes in chapter 4 of the importance of desegregating generations, of being close to people who are in different stages of life than us. This allows us to see not only our own generational weaknesses, but it also prompts us to consider the brevity of life—and to seek answers to the big questions death and old age give us. He furthermore reminds us of the necessity of suffering as he says, “We seem collectively blind to the irony that the generation coming of age has begun life with far too few problems.” Quoting Aeschylus, Sasse writes, “he who learns must suffer…against our will comes wisdom through the awful grace of enduring pain.” Living insolated lives may make us more comfortable in the moment, and it has, but it will fail to teach us the invaluable lessons that only pain can produce.

In Chapter 5, Sasse calls us to embrace work pain, a traditionally American quality. Francis Grund observed of Americans in the 1830s that “there is probably no people on earth with whom business constitutes pleasure, and industry amusement, in an equal degree with the inhabitants of the United States of America. Active occupation is not only the principal source of their happiness, and the foundation of their national greatness, but they are absolutely wretched without it.” If Grund was correct then, how far we have fallen? (I am often absolutely wretched with work!) Sasse calls us to revive the classical “Protestant work ethic” which, instead of taking pleasure in the leisure and the consumption—took the greatest pleasure in the production.

In my favorite chapter, Sasse calls us to “build a bookshelf” and recapture a voracious love of reading books. He does a short track through the bombshell of the printing press halfway through the 15th century—and the “bloodless revolution” that ensued. America is, in essence, a result of the explosion of ideas that Guttenberg ignited, founded on protecting the free interaction of those same ideas. Printer Benjamin Franklin and the eventual President Thomas Jefferson embodied the obsession with the written word typical of colonial America; and it is exactly that passion for big ideas and dialogue which laid the groundwork for our eventual freedom. As these ideas united the people in a singular vision for America, Sasse calls us then to recover our heritage of reading--and not just reading for pleasure, but reading to wrestle with philosophies from giants of the past. He also lists his 60 book canon which I found quite enjoyable.

Ben Sasse, writes of his experiences through travelling and other personal lessons learned from his past. This helps make this book even more of an enjoyable read and perfect for students who are graduating college or looking to start families. Above all it calls us to embrace the precious “American Idea” devoted to hard work, the free exchange of ideas, and the inalienable human rights we possess.

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