Arts & Culture & At Work

The Vital Role of Work in Raising an American Adult

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Adulting (v): to do grown up things and hold responsibilities such as, a 9 to 5 job, a mortgage/rent, a car payment, or anything else that makes one think of grown-ups.

Is Becoming an Adult an Optional “Activity”?

Over the last couple of years, the new word “adulting” has taken the social media world by storm.  Search “#adulting” and you will see comments like: “Today I set up and went to a dental appointment without either of my parents. IT was terrifying. #adulting,” or “today i made payments on my credit cards, paid off a loan, and cancelled my hulu subscription before the free trial ended #adulting.”

The word has become so popular it received a nomination from the American Dialect Society for the most creative word of 2015.

Not everyone is excited about this new addition to our lexicon or our American experience. For example, Canadian Oxford Dictionary named “adulting” the most annoying word of 2015 right after “millennial.” A recent episode of Morning Edition on NPR described an Adulting School (teaching young adults how to be grown-ups) that has drawn considerable “criticism for its perceived coddling.”

Independence and the Role of Work

This trend may be symptomatic of a greater problem. Over the past decade or so, we’ve seen adolescence become more protracted. Current 18- to 34-year-old are moving more slowly toward independent adulthood.

Last year, a Pew Research Center study revealed a new trend:

For the first time in more than 130 years, adults aged 18 to 34 were slightly more likely to be living in their parents’ home than they were to be living with a spouse or partner in their own household.

By all indications, we are looking at a national problem in our teaching and our learning about healthy adulthood, which is why a recent Wall Street Journal article by Senator Ben Sasse caught my attention. The article talked about his newly released book, The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance.

I was particularly interested in his chapter on work based on the following quote I heard in a radio interview:

I think this category of perpetual adolescence, it’s a new thing, and it’s a dangerous thing. Adolescence is a pretty glorious concept. It’s about intentionally transitioning from childhood to adulthood. Being stuck in adolescence—that’s a hell. Peter Pan is a dystopia, and we forget that. Neverland is a bad place to be. It is good for kids to learn how to work. Right now, we’re acting like keeping our kids free from work is a way to treat them really nicely, when in reality thoughtful parenting wants to help free our kids to find meaning in work.

Sasse currently serves as a Senator from Nebraska, but his ideas come from both his own experience as a father and his time as president of Midland University, where he observed a certain reluctance among students to “finish hard things.” His MA in philosophy and Ph.D. in history (Yale) also give him an interesting insight into understanding the underlying issues in the perpetual adolescence phenomenon.

Faith Informing Right Attitudes about Work and Struggle

While this book is written primarily for a secular audience, Sasse is not shy about speaking about his deep Christian faith and how it has significantly influenced his thinking.

The chapter on work, “Embrace Work Pain,” isn’t just good, it’s excellent. In many ways, it tracks with many of the things we write about here at IFWE. Sasse frames the chapter like this:

…I assumed that basically all young people everywhere had similar place-holder role models in their mind and thus the transmission of a work ethic to each next generation was more or less inevitable. This chapter is about how painfully wrong I was in that assumption.  It’s also about why failing to transmit an ethic that productivity is essential to human flourishing will leave us at odds with how America and Americans came to be. Finally, this chapter aims to persuade you that there is almost nothing more important we can do for our young than convince them that production is more satisfying than consumption. Indeed, a hallmark of virtuous adulthood is learning to find freedom in your work rather than freedom from your work, even when work hurts.

The rest of the book is surprisingly thoughtful and engaging. Sasse speaks to the importance of understanding the link between culture and sustaining a functioning republic, writing:

America is a creedal nation—that is, it depends on a shared creed or belief set about dignity and freedom…It depends not on the expert rule of a small, faraway elite class, but rather on the virtue and self-reliance of an entire republican (small r) populace.

Beyond Restoring a Work Ethic

He correctly argues that we are not teaching the next generation what’s necessary to become the kind of citizens that built and sustained this nation for two hundred years. In this, he speaks not only to the issue of work but also education, travel, virtue, ethics, politics, and building intergenerational connections. As one reviewer writes:

It’s more of a how-to guide for surviving and thriving in the 21st century—and it’s also about raising kids to become adults with values and character. It’s about how to live in a world that is simultaneously too comfortable and sanitized—but paradoxically too chaotic and dangerous.

While The Vanishing American Adult has its critics who complain it is just self-help for well-to-do parents, the book will not only challenge your thoughts about how to raise the next generation of Americans, it will also make you think long and hard about possible gaps in your own education and how you might fix them.

You need to put The Vanishing American Adult on your summer reading list.

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  • Andrew Hicks

    While parenting certainly plays a role, much of the trend toward “perpetual adolescence” can be attributed to a single policy: Expanded access to student loans.

    Like most misguided efforts, this policy was formed with laudable goals and the best of intentions. However, many youths who would have otherwise joined the workforce after high school are now pursuing diluted college degrees of dubious value. As a result, many are taking the same service jobs at age 22 that just twenty years ago they would have taken at age 18.

    Moreover, increased federal money for student loans artificially increases demand for college education, which in turn drives up tuition costs. While in college, students often face similar out-of-pocket costs as students from 20-30 years ago, with the chief difference being the amount of debt they leave with. The burden of paying off loans approaching six figures–often while working as a barista or a server–almost certainly increases the number of young adults who still live with their parents as they try to reduce living expenses.

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