Ben Sasse’s “Vanishing American Adult” is Earnest, But Reflects a Generational Misunderstanding

Image by Kathy Bugajsky from Pixabay

Read Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska)’s now famous quasi-parenting book, The Vanishing American Adult and you might not emerge too optimistic about the future of our society when you finish. The book paints America’s emerging adults as lazy, entitled, arrogant, looking to escape responsibility, and lacking critical thinking ability. Sasse doesn’t lay the blame on children themselves, rather he chastises today’s parents, pop culture, and even our education system for creating a society of what he calls “perpetual adolescence.” And he doesn’t offer very much hope in the way of solutions with the exception of tidbits of parenting advice that he bullets at the end of every chapter.

But while Sasse earnestly brings up real concerns, highlights potential for truly significant societal problems, and seeks to understand the mistakes we made to arrive at them, the world Sasse portrays is one of sweeping generalizations about today’s youth and a fundamental misunderstanding of generational differences.

You may be surprised to hear, but I agree with a lot of what Senator Sasse says in his book. He makes a thoughtful argument backed up with data (though perhaps cherry-picked) to support his claims. And it isn’t hard, especially as a young person, to recognize the problems of civic disengagement, a consumerist culture, schooling failures, and lack of exposure to work at young age as legitimate and potentially damming. But the brush with which Sasse paints is much too broad. It suggests, or at least fails to clarify otherwise, that all young people are in fact trying to flee work and responsibility and that all parents have allowed this to happen by sheltering their children into adulthood and trying to be their children’s peers.

What Sasse is referring to are the attitudes and behaviors of many (though certainly not all) millennials, many of which are concerning and an issue for a different article. It is true that Millennials have shown a reluctance toward work that is unlike generations before them. And much of the parenting issues Sasse criticizes are a result of Baby Boomer parents who, as generational expert David Stillman points out in the book Gen Z at Work, did in fact provide much shelter to their children, pushed or totally eliminated the line between child and adulthood, allowed their children to move back in with them, and tried to be the “cool parents.”

Without generalizing, many of the issues Sasse presents concerns about are Millennial issues. The “weakness” and “fragility” he speaks of is one of the commonly complained about traits of millennials that was in fact created by a childhood free of many major societal problems and the idea instilled in children of the late 80s and 90s that if you just “tried hard and believed in yourself,” you would be without hardship in life. And this makes sense; in the book Sasse often makes his points by referring to stories of his time as President of Midland College in Nebraska — a role he filled from 2010 to 2014 — a time when the student body would have been entirely comprised of millennials.

Sasse makes the same fundamental mistake that many are still so often making — referring to all young people under the age of 35 as millennials. In the minds of many, the millennial generation is never ending, and all the “negative” traits millennials possess will be instilled in children forevermore. This is incorrect. Sasse should know that he himself is not raising millennials (Sasse has three children) but rather Gen Zers. And he may be surprised to know that many parents of his generation, not the generation before him, share many of his views on parenting.

As Stillman points out in Gen Z at Work, that unlike Boomers with Millennials, Gen X parents, like Sasse, raising Gen Z children are not so “sunshine and rainbows.” Stillman says that Gen Z parenting has been more oriented toward letting their children fail, learning things the hard way, building resilience, being direct, and letting them know the world is tough. And many Gen Zers don’t need their parents to tell them that — they grew up in the wake of 9/11, saw their parents lose their jobs in the Great Recession, and graduated during the Coronavirus Pandemic. Their childhood was hardly the “Era of Good Feelings” that the 90s was for millennials. Countering Sasse’s assessment that young people seek “freedom from work,” Gen Zers have reported being more excited than any previous generation to enter the workforce.

To be sure, Gen Zers do share some traits with millennials. Sasse devotes an entire chapter of his book to the importance of reading and what may be lost when we do not have a common set of works to start from in our national debate. Studies have indeed shown that Gen Zers are reading, at least in the traditional sense, less than ever before (although they are interested in having conversations about what they do read). The amount of screen time that Sasse worries about is also unlikely to be reduced with this generation. And Gen Z’s levels civic engagement and patriotism is something that has yet to be fully understood (or even studied).

Yet Sasse’s primary critique, that young people are unwilling or unable to make the transition to adulthood and that today’s youth only look at work as means to an end flatly does not line up with what we know about Gen Z’s behaviors and desires. We are seeing a generation who wants to work, wants to find meaning in their work, has the skills necessary to build careers and livelihoods, and wants to make a profound difference in the world around them. This generation is not the one that Senator Sasse writes about in The Vanishing American Adult. While there are concerns to be had about the future of our society, it is unlikely that we have actually lost the “culture of self-reliance” Sasse speaks of.

Despite a misdiagnosis, Sasse has indeed written an important book whose concerns in regard to systems like education should be addressed and parenting advice heeded. While Gen Z may avoid making Sasse’s most dire warnings a reality in the near future, our society is still only a generation (or two) away from falling into the traps Sasse brings to light. Millennials and Gen Zers would do well to read this book, understand the societal problems and how we arrived at them, and commit themselves to working to solve rather than perpetrate them when it is their turn to be parents.

Organizational psych guru interested in values based organizations, Gen Z, and the Future of Work. Working to create a happier, more productive workforce.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store