Nebraska Senator Warns of ‘Peter Pan Epidemic’: Should Catholics Worry?

NEWS ANALYSIS: The Vanishing American Adult, by Republican Ben Sasse, has sparked debate about the shifting timeline for financial independence and marriage and the challenge that poses for Catholics.

Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska
Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska (photo: Public domain)

WASHINGTON — Are more college graduates now living at home because of a bad economy or fear of adult responsibilities?

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, and a former university president, acknowledges both possibilities, but puts most of the blame on “passive drift.” 

In his new book, The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming of Age Crisis, Sasse argues that “too many of our kids are stuck in perpetual adolescence.”

“Hard work” and meaningful chores during childhood and adolescence forged a tough, resilient spirit in previous generations, he contends. But many of today’s college students have been spared these trials, even as a progressive-minded public-school system resists the transmission of classic Western thought and values, and mass culture makes “consumption, rather than production,” a primary mission.

“Puberty is a space that enables ‘greenhouse’ protection during the transition to adulthood, but adolescence is not an end in itself,” Sasse told the Register in a telephone interview.

Peter Pan’s Neverland “is a dystopia, not a utopia,” the freshman senator stated. “But we have not done a good job of helping our kids recognize that.”

Sasse’s book describes his own efforts, as a father and university president, to challenge a culture of entitlement. He has sent his home-schooled teenage daughter to a cattle ranch for four months of hard work and pressed college students to take ownership of their education during his years at the helm of Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska.

American parents, teachers and Church leaders must also find ways to help young people consciously prepare for adult life and see the redemptive value of personal struggles, he says.

His book floats some ideas to aid this process: Take every opportunity to bring the young into contact with their elders, give children more challenges outside the classroom, and strengthen coming-of-age rituals that mark the transition to adulthood.

The Vanishing American Adult is not the kind of book usually penned by political figures, and it has little to say about real-time politics. But then Sasse, an active Presbyterian who earned an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a doctorate in history from Yale, is not a typical politician.


Changing Benchmarks

So does he have a point?

Catholic educators, academics and vocations directors may not have had time to delve into this book, but they agree that the broad themes he addresses — falling marriage rates and related trends — are cause for alarm, and they believe that Church-run schools and the faithful can do more to awaken a hunger to assume adult commitments. But while Sasse is worried about a fading ethic of hard work, some see the sexual revolution as the primary culprit.

Analysts also say that broad social developments, like more young people attending college and older Americans’ increased longevity and workforce participation, are changing benchmarks for all age groups.

Today’s extended adolescence “is largely a result of two social trends — the rising age of marriage, now pushing 30, a function of increasing years of education, and the sexual revolution,” Father Paul Sullins, a sociologist at The Catholic University of America, told the Register.

“Adulthood arguably begins at the point of reproduction — certainly a baby usually brings on adult responsibility,” said Father Sullins.

But with college graduates marrying in their late 20s or later (or not at all) and two-career households now the norm, the maturing effect of caring for a young child is also delayed, sometimes indefinitely.

“Reproduction is the marker of adulthood; the values and tasks traditionally associated with majority age [at which a person is granted by law the rights and responsibilities of adulthood] in our culture were all oriented to support reproduction, in a gendered division of reproductive effort,” said Father Sullins, who observed that modern career-minded women may well show more resilience than their male counterparts, whose role has become less defined.

Further, during the past 40 years, legal abortion, birth control and assisted reproduction have facilitated the pursuit of advanced education and career goals, he said.

But they also send the message that we can “reshape nature to accommodate our personal desires, rather than the other way around,” and this may discourage more intense preparation for life after school.

However, sociologists like Father Sullins are careful to distinguish between the phenomenon of college graduates finding refuge in their childhood homes for a spell and a more disturbing, parallel trend: young, mostly working-class, men opting out of adult commitments altogether, with 12% of men in their prime working years no longer seeking a job, and single mothers now accounting for 40% of U.S. births each year.


Educational Factors

Sasse, for his part, has pitched his message to solidly middle-class parents who fear their children are losing ground, failing to develop the character and work ethic they need to flourish.

Meanwhile, he questions a still-dominant progressive educational pedagogy that promotes individual expression and rights, but downplays personal responsibility and ignores many of the ideas and ideals that made the West great.

The senator’s critique, said Andrew Seeley, executive director of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, will resonate with Catholics like him who are involved in the fast-growing classical school movement.

Classical schools adopt a curriculum designed to instill a love for the good, the true and the beautiful, with children’s stories and classes in the arts, history and science advancing this goal. The schools rely upon the venerable tools of the Trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) set forth by Dorothy Sayers in her 1947 essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” and Sasse’s book devotes a chapter to Sayer’s work. 

The public-school system’s well-documented failures have spawned a regime of standardized testing, along with a burgeoning school-choice movement. But Seeley, like Sasse, is sharply critical of the outsized impact of standardized tests on classroom time.

In their view, teachers spend too much of the school day drilling basic skills, but often miss the big picture: What is an education for?  

Teachers in many U.S. schools “are driven to excel on standardized tests, without really understanding” the deeper foundational elements of a good education, Seeley told the Register.

“And students respond by learning the secrets of doing well on tests, or they might drop out because it’s not fulfilling their spirit.”

Either way, the race for top scores leaves many high school and college graduates ill-prepared for the more complex challenges that working adults will face, he argued.

“A professor of physical therapy told me … that students had stopped asking the kinds of difficult, unforeseen questions about real-life situations that come from motivated students. Now, they only ask, ‘Is it going to be on the test?’”

The professor, in turn, now spends more of his time “just trying to convince students that physical therapy is not a test. They will be dealing with real people, getting to know them so they can help them. It can be a rude awakening.”

In his experience, boys and young men are more likely to check out than their female counterparts.

“Guys need to believe they are doing something worthwhile. When they check out … I know guys that spend 12 hours a day playing video games.”


Competing for Attention

Anthony Esolen, a professor at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts and the author of Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, has also witnessed a rise in “checked-out” undergraduates, but said he did not know how to address this problem with his students.

Liberal arts professors like Esolen are competing with laptops and smartphones, and it has become more difficult, he said, to set aside a period of time when a different kind of interaction will take students out of their comfort zones.

He shares Sasse’s esteem for the character-building value of manual labor and has noticed the stronger “disposition” of students raised on farms.

Likewise, Esolen applauds all pursuits that help children learn about the world beyond classroom routines, especially when they substitute concrete experiences with interactions facilitated by technology.

“We should be suspicious of every educational ‘innovation’ that removes the young person’s mind and eyes and ears and hands from real things — trees, rocks, planks, streams, poems, songs, etc.,” said Esolen.

But Andreas Widmer, director of the Entrepreneurship Programs at The Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business, was more cautious about defining present trends and has worked with many college students eager to make their way in the world.

“A variety of students come through CUA, so making broad generalizations is dangerous and imprecise,” said Widmer, a former Swiss Guard and the author of The Pope & The CEO: Pope John Paul II’s Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard, a book exploring leadership lessons that Widmer learned serving as a Swiss Guard.

Still, Widmer told the Register that Sasse is right to challenge the received wisdom on modern child-rearing.

“Today, children are much more protected than the generation before. That means that before they [have a chance to] fail, someone steps in,” oftentimes, Widmer told the Register.

He takes a different approach with his students, pushing freshman to “take risks” as they build a business plan and test the market.

He tells them that his success as an entrepreneur was built on previous stumbles: “When you start a company, you fail much more than you succeed.”


Pastoral Perspective

Classroom teachers and college professors both witness the formative impact of well-intentioned but often counterproductive practices that set expectations in childhood: parents who “step in” when their child forgets her homework and soccer games where every participant gets a trophy.

In the Church, pastors and vocations directors have observed the impact of more entrenched cultural norms that encourage the young to keep their “options open” and thus pose a more daunting challenge for those who are charged with recruiting men to the priesthood.

The prolonged adolescence prevalent in U.S. culture also shapes the direction of “young men discerning a priestly vocation,” said Father Jeffrey Gubbiotti, the vocation director for the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut.

He told the Register, “Constant media and information flow, along with the ‘hook-up’ and divorce culture, lead to the thought that ‘nothing is permanent.’”

“So a vocation, which touches the eternal and opens the horizon of a permanent commitment, seems very foreign to young people in Western society today,” he said.

Like many Catholic sources contacted by the Register, the vocation director believes that Sasse raises important questions. Too many of the young have not learned the value of “delaying the gratification of their desires … the hallmark of maturity and adulthood.”

“Yet love without an openness to sacrificing for the good of the beloved is a fantasy or a fraud,” the priest said.

Asked how a vocation director can engage teenagers and college students, and inspire them to embrace a life of self-sacrificial love, Father Gubbiotti has no easy answers, but also never loses hope in the power of the Holy Spirit.

“Vocations work isn’t recruiting so much as inviting young people to ask the big questions in life,” he said.

“Instead of asking just the ‘what’ questions, the ‘why’ is important, since God is at work in our deepest desires.”


Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.