Senator Ben Sasse has done the unthinkable for a politician: written an excellent book, not specifically about politics, and made it immensely readable.
The Vanishing America Adult is Sasse’s meditation on the crisis of prolonged adolescence in America. As Sasse tells it, kids are no longer being taught how to produce, only how to consume and the real problem is no one is shepherding them into adulthood the way children once were.
It would be easy to write a tome blaming millennials for their failure to launch. Much has been dissected about kids these days with their astronomical expectations and minimal dedication. Sasse doesn’t take the easy route. Instead he looks at how society is dissuading kids from growing up and how we can stop it.
Sasse is an historian and it shows in his writing. He comes to the topic with the weight of knowing what adulthood was like through the ages. Greek philosophers get mentioned, Thomas Edison, Henry David Thoreau, Benjamin Franklin, Teddy Roosevelt, Alexis de Tocqueville and others.
He spends a lot of time on John Dewey. Dewey was a philosopher and education reformer. Sasse writes that Dewey has “the single best claim to be the father of the American public high school.” Sasse is respectful but blames Dewey for the fact that school is no longer what Sasse calls “a tool—a means to an end”— and has instead become an all-encompassing experience in children’s lives.
Kids today suffer from what Sasse calls a lack of “set expectations and clarified duties.” Once upon a time the markers for adulthood were clear. Sasse lays out eight of them, including “moving from your parents’ home,” “reaching economic self sufficiency,” “marriage” and “children.” Today kids stay in their parents’ home until a much later age, they defer marriage, sometimes indefinitely. They struggle with economic self-sufficiency because no one ever taught them how to be dedicated to work in a way that will lead to prosperity. When happiness is seen as the main goal of employment, it’s easy to step away when the job isn’t fulfilling. He encourages treating children as assets worth developing. The world will be theirs someday and it’s our job to get them ready.
Many of Sasse’s tips amount to living a more purposeful life. He recommends travel to see different places. Don’t pack too much, be open to the experience, take a bus or a train. His chapter called “Build a Bookshelf” contains recommendation for books children should be reading as they pass into adulthood. He has a section on “Tyrants” and one for “Markets.”
The chapter “Make America an Idea Again” concludes that “what’s happening now in this country is we are reaping the fruits of the last 50 years of ceasing to talk in a meaningful, public way about what unites us.” That’s the main Sasse message: America is special and different because it was started on an idea and if we don’t acknowledge that and take it seriously, it can fade away.
There is much impressive about Ben Sasse’s book and about Ben Sasse the man. His role during the 2016 election, as one of the few Republican Senators to abstain from endorsing Donald Trump, got him noticed. His affable Twitter personality gains him fans. But more than anything he seems to actually walk the walk.
Last year he drove an Uber to get a chance to meet his constituents and talk to them about their problems. This isn’t a book for how other people should parent their children, it’s clearly how Sasse and his wife themselves do it. Sasse is rare in Washington, and this book is another example of that.