America’s vanishing adults

A recent book by US senator Ben Sasse laments the decline of adult role models in American life. In The Vanishing American Adult Sasse describes an unprecedented “coming-of-age crisis” in which American children “simply don’t know what an adult is anymore—or how to become one.” Instead of criticizing the “laziness of the rising generation” or of “stultifying helicopter parenting”, Sasse tries to identify the roots of the new “perpetual adolescence” and to suggest what parents and politicians might do to address them.

One source of American ‘adultescence’ is what Sasse calls “generational segregation”: the rigid separation of different age groups from each other. Increasingly, older people have been shunted to the margins of American life, creating a culture in which senescence and death mostly occur offstage. One recent study found that in the previous six months only a quarter of American seniors – those aged 60 and older – had held a meaningful conversation with anyone under 36. If relatives were discounted, Sasse notes, “the percentage drops to a jarring 6 percent.” This distancing has entrenched a childlike naivety about aging among Millennials, and deprived them of traditional socializing. Meanwhile, US teens face ubiquitous peer pressure – considerably strengthened by social media – with little or no guidance from their elders. This makes them easy prey to advertising and marketing, with the result that many now think of themselves primarily as consumers rather than citizens.

These ruptures in the social fabric have come at a moment when more young people remain economically dependent on their parents. Pew researchers recently found that for the first time in more than 130 years, America’s 18-34 year olds are likelier to live at their parents’ home than with a spouse or partner. To some extent, this dependence is inevitable in a post-industrial economy, but it also reflects a stark decline in their capacity to forge relationships. A separate Pew survey found that 20 per cent of US adults – a rate that extrapolates to 42 million people nationwide – said they had “always been single” – a doubling of the rate from 50 years earlier.

Disconnected from traditional roles and relationships, and often with limited disposable incomes, a vast number of Americans now escape to virtual worlds. In 2010, one month after the video game Call of Duty: Black Ops was released, its users racked up 68,000 years of game time. The average 21-year-old American male now spends an estimated 14,000 hours on similar pursuits – more than a year and a half of his life. Video games also account for three-quarters of the leisure time for men who have less than a four-year college degree according to an economist at the University of Chicago.

It matters little whether we agree with Sasse’s specific remedies for this crisis (broad educational reform, increased literacy, religious and civic involvement and culturally-engaged travel). His larger point about the social isolation and unpreparedness of young adults is as relevant in the Caribbean as in Europe or North America. It is time that we admit that there are no good reasons why we continue to warehouse children in outmoded schools that impart few of the skills needed for adulthood. Our relative indifference to this problem is also compounded by our collective surrender of traditional parental responsibilities to institutions that cannot discharge them.

A local reader of Sasse’s book will find consolation in the fact that Guyana is still small enough, and our culture correspondingly close-knit, to avoid the alienation that afflicts so many Americans. While we lack the institutional strength that US policy-makers can take for granted when they address these issues, our local communities are arguably more adaptable. But regardless of how we address our own challenges, the book is a useful reminder that resilient cultures freely admit their failings and attempt to identify, and bolster, their strengths before a crisis turns into something worse.




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