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Boys Who Will Never Grow Up





August 9, 2017

Lead Illustration for Ben Sasse’s article, “Perpetual Adolescence.”

All around us we see boys mired in adolescence who are increasingly unlikely to ever grow up. In order to keep current as a historian of ideas, I read from a wide variety of books, magazines, and newspapers. But none of them provide the level of wisdom I find in the “Review” section of the Wall Street Journal weekend edition. Several months ago, the lead article was titled “Perpetual Adolescence: And What to Do About it” (May 6-7, 2017). It was taken from Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse’s new book, The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming of Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance.

Senator Sasse (a former college president), in his book, notes that “What’s new today is the drift toward perpetual adolescence. What’s new today is seeing so much less difference now between 10-year olds and young adults in their late teens and early 20s.

“As many parents can attest, independent adulthood is no longer the norm for their generation. Data from the Pew Research Center shows that we crossed a historic threshold last year: ‘For the first time in more than 130 years, adults ages 18 to 34 years 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.’ Fully one-quarter of Americans between 25 and 29 live with a parent—compared with only 18% just over a decade ago.”

As for reasons, Sasse references the economy, our incredible wealth and the creature comforts we are so used to, parental reluctance to expose their children to real work, and the [in his words] “hostage-taking hold that computers and mobile devices have on adolescent attention.”

Sesse concludes that “Our nation is in the midst of a collective coming-of-age crisis. Too many of our children simply don’t know what an adult is anymore—or how to become one. Perhaps more problematic, older generations have forgotten that we need to teach them. It’s our fault more than it’s theirs.”

Truer words were never spoken. All around us I see confirmation of Sasse’s conclusions. Both nationally and in our Colorado communities, I see businesses closing because they can’t get able-bodied teens and young adults to accept work opportunities. Just two weeks ago, there was a story on evening TV news about the many Louisiana fishermen who are losing an entire fishing season because they can’t get enough people to work on their boats.

This situation so reminds me of Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), and his monumental work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (published during 1776-1788). In it, Gibbon famously postulated that Rome (one of the greatest nations in all history) began declining at the point when prolonged affluence and power resulted in its citizens paying foreigners, slaves, and down-and-outers to fight their wars for them, when faith in a Higher Power began to erode, when families began to collapse, when hedonistic pleasure replaced the work ethic, etc. By extension, if we wish to apply these reasons for Rome’s decline to America, it would be hard to deny that the generations that fought World War I, were savaged by the pandemic dubbed “The Spanish Flu” (killed, according to Time, 50 million to 100 million people at the end of World War I), and fought World War II, were indeed America’s “Greatest Generations.” And tragically, unless there are major course corrections in the very near future, according to Gibbon’s formulae, America’s greatest days are behind us.

Sobering indeed!

We will continue next week.