Thursday, June 15, 2017

Growin' Up

A decade ago, columnist Diana West took aim at what was then a burgeoning flight from adulthood among 20-somethings in the United States and connected it to the nation's seeming inability to defend the civilization and culture that had created and strengthened it.

In The Death of the Grown-Up, West argued that the flowering of the Baby Boom generation in the 1950s began a national trend of focusing not on people with experience, wisdom and knowledge but instead on young people with angst, restlessness and a hankerin' for whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it. West suggests that the exaltation of youth culture, channeled through music and other entertainment media, reduced the appeal and importance of "grown-up" virtues like self-discipline and delayed gratification, with consequent cultural, societal, political and economic problems. And rather than self-correcting, society doubled down on its youth-ophilia to the degree that much of the entertainment, popular culture and advertising we see presupposes youthful and youthful-appearing-ness as not just a virtue but the height of virtues. So that now, when the edifice of Western civilization that created the freedom we all enjoy, is under attack, we can't defend it. And we might even be cooperating in pulling it down.

West scores a number of points and has quite a bit of fun with supposed adults who spend their time playing video games while living in their parents' basement. But she's a columnist writing a polemic rather than an in-depth look at a cultural phenomenon, and her attitude comes across as cranky rather than critical. One of her main worries seems to be that our lack of adulthood hamstrings us in the cultural battle with Islamicism and Islamist terror. That's certainly a point, but the kind of glorification of transience she deplores and comments against should trouble us whether we were in a cultural showdown or not. Plus the political correctness that she sees as the core of our current weakness doesn't really need adolescence to fuel it. West's rant is fun if you agree with her but empty if you don't, and offers little in the way of solutions beyond turning down the music, getting rid of the ball cap and getting a job. And staying off her lawn.
Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, writing ten years later, is working the same field as West did, but his The Vanishing American Adult tackles its subject matter with significantly more seriousness and more focus on solutions than symptoms.

Sasse is a Harvard-educated historian who came to the Senate after a six-year term as president of Midland University. He also sees a generation failing to move beyond its adolescent infatuation with its own awesomeness, but he looks for historical causes and finds what he thinks to be solutions based on them. This isn't a scholarly work with a lot of footnotes, although there are endnotes for the curious and a moderate index.

Part of the problem, Sasse says, is that the very natural desire of parents to keep their children from harm has put them into situations where they have rarely, if ever, been forced to think for themselves, face hard choices, cope with adversity or endure hardship now in return for a gain later. The problem will boil down, as he moves through the book, to a culture that does not invest real time or self in anything it does, from vacationing to reading to work. The solution will come from reacquiring those habits, and that will happen at the direction of parents who want their children to be able to cope with life. Such moves will mean recovery of the understanding of adolescence it initially bore -- a transitional period when children acquire adult habits, understanding and skills -- and abandoning its current meaning as a goal to be reached and retained as long as plastic surgery and silliness make possible.

Sasse has a better handle on the real problem than West does and better ideas of how to counter it -- or at least, he has asked more questions of the problem in order to find its roots. A number of his ideas -- helping young people learn how to suffer, persevere and handle adversity instead of avoiding it, for example -- are on target. But in this book, anyway, he doesn't have much of a notion as to how these solutions can be applied to communities where none of the fabric of adulthood remains, such as devastated inner cities. He more or less acknowledges that but doesn't go much farther.

Vanishing is still a better book about the United States' eternal adolescence than is Death of the Grown-Up, and thinking about what it says much more likely to produce something concrete. It may not have everyone's roadmap out of the snowflake culture in which we seem inundated, but it's got a pretty good one for enough people to get things started and figure out how to help the rest.


fillyjonk said...

The problem I have with a lot of this commentary (I have not read these particular books, but have seen it in online discussions about "be an adult"), is that they tend to conflate liking things aimed at kids or adolescents (e.g., comic books) with being the sort of immature, irresponsible person that is, they say, "breaking the country."

I like comic books. I like cartoons. I still buy some small toys for myself. I enjoy Lego.

But dangit, if I have to do something, if I have some responsibility, I get that thing DONE.

And I tend to argue that since my bills are all paid on time, I have no debt, I'm effective at work, and I carry a lot of responsibility other places - no one has the right to look askance at me for wanting to re-watch the dvd of "Inside Out" on a rare evening off....

(sorry for the rant but as someone who is carrying waaaaay too much responsibility some times, that attitude - that you should give up everything that makes you happy just so you "look" adult - gets under my skin)

Friar said...

I think that's a pretty legitimate knock on West's book. She did seem to lean heavily towards the idea that spending some time with fun non-adult things indicates unseriousness in most of the rest of life.

Sasse is arguing against something working at a deeper level. I think one of the best descriptions of adulthood is knowing when and when not to be "un-adult," and putting my terms onto his argument, he's concerned we as a society are not only losing the ability to know when that is but also the ability to make the choice when it becomes necessary.