The title sounds like the author is going to offer yet another harrumph about the indolence of American twenty-somethings who refuse to work, millennials who can’t make a commitment, and men in their thirties who still live with their mothers. And, in the first three chapters, Ben Sasse does in fact lambast a culture that fosters perpetual adolescence and emphasizes immediate gratification. But The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance is far more than another creed against the Peter Pan syndrome where we never want to grow up. Sasse, a U.S. Senator from Nebraska, is deeply concerned that adulthood is not only disappearing in our society but is increasingly incomprehensible to young people. As he puts it early on, Our kids don’t know what an adult is anymore—or how to become one. Furthermore, the author warns, our society will not last long unless we again become grownups.
We have become stranded in Neverland, that place where we never have to grow up. It takes 6,573 days on earth for us to become an adult in the eyes of the state: at 6,573 days we celebrate our eighteenth birthday. But becoming a genuine adult is increasingly rare. The traditional coming-of-age rituals—self-reliance, learning to work, leaving home for marriage and family—are being bypassed in lives marked by immediate gratification.
Sasse’s book probes how we got to this place where a large portion of our people in the prime of their lives are stuck in a sad sort of limbo, ordering pizza on cell phones while streaming Netflix from their parents’ basements. The author’s answer will surprise many. First, kids no longer know how to produce. Instead of working, they are playing sports with hired referees. Second—and where can you find a U.S. Senator who would say this out loud!—we keep our kids in school for too long, and this allows them to avoid adulthood. We assume every teenager should be in school through grade twelve while in the late 1890s fewer than 10% of America’s 14- through 17 year-olds attended school. Also contributing to our perpetual adolescence is the decline of the family where a mother and father are present, as well as the saturation of digital technology. Television, for example, “adultifies” children while “infantilizing” adults. Sasse cites Neil Postman’s observation about the impact of television:
Childhood’s innocence is lost and the idea of shame becomes “diluted and demystified.” Deliberate adulthood was turned into an affliction to be avoided, even a joke.
Ben Sasse is no curmudgeon who writes simply in order to gripe. The Vanishing American Adult is something of a manifesto for change. The author makes concrete proposals to help us become a society of adults. Sasse advises, for instance, that we flee age segregation, and he stresses the importance of the generations doing things together. Children need to learn early that work involves pain, and parents should teach their children—and themselves—to consume less. The senator stresses the value of reading good books and even offers a lively annotated bibliography on how to build a five-foot bookshelf.
The Vanishing American Adult is well worth the effort. This fairly short book will aid parents raising children in a digital age, challenge twenty-somethings to greater maturity, and encourage the middle-aged and the elderly to press on in the endeavor of growing up as we grow old.
Senator Sasse possesses a strong evangelical faith, and his book reflects the wisdom of God even as he writes for a broad audience of readers. The author does not string together a series of Bible verses to buttress his concerns or to support his recommendations. Rather, he writes a thoughtful essay that—ideally—will push toward maturity, all of us who read his book.
As I read Sasse’s book, it dawned on me that Christians have an advantage as we travel the road toward adulthood. Simply put, when we give our lives to Christ, we predispose ourselves toward maturity. The New Testament emphases on discipleship, on our new life in Christ, on growing in our faith, is a divine “twofer”. When we are born again, we are—by definition—spiritual infants. But as we move from being spiritual babies into faithful maturity, we cannot help but become adults in other ways, as well.
One enormous prompt toward maturity that God gives his children is the church. When we embrace Christ, we embrace his friends, too. We find ourselves in a community of believers who care for us and for whom we are to care deeply. We become members of Christ’s body, and members of one another. One of the enduring values of belonging to a church is that our membership compels us to grow up.
Think about it. In the church, we sing together. We enjoy the preaching of God’s word together. We give our monies toward the kingdom purposes of God together. We disciple one another. When we truly belong to God’s church, we move toward adulthood in ways that are startling. Consider that in the church we learn—Lord willing—to manage our tongues, our bodies, and also our money. To put it a bit more crudely, in the community of God’s people, we learn to keep our mouths shut when they should be shut; we learn to keep our pants on when we should keep them on; and we learn to keep our credit cards in our wallet when we lack the finances to pay off our monthly balance. The church also teaches us about delayed gratification, civic responsibility, the responsible use (or non-use) of alcohol, the appreciation of art, and the proper place of work and rest in our lives.
Clearly, membership in the church compels us to grow up. May it be so for those of us who call Santa Barbara Community Church home.