Adults Aren’t Vanishing, They Just Look Different

The following column from Jennifer Pagliara, CapWealth Senior Advisor, appeared in The Tennessean on May 26, 2017. Read it at The Tennessean here.

Ben Sasse, the Republican senator from Nebraska, is an accomplished man. At 45 years of age, he’s already served as president of a college, an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and has earned three master’s degrees and a doctorate from illustrious institutions such as Harvard and Yale. In addition to being accomplished, he’s principled. Whether you agree with his politics or not, early on in the election last year, Sasse repudiated Trump and never backed down — a rather lonely stance as a Republican.

An accomplished and principled senator

As yet further proof of his achievement and sense of virtue, Sasse has just published a book titled “The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance.” There’s a lot to like about the book. But there’s also some of it that I take issue with, particularly the disparagement of my generation, the millennials.
I’ll start with what I like. Sasse sings the praises of hard work, travel and reading books, and compellingly explains why. All three teach you about the world and yourself, expanding your mind beyond the immediate, the familiar and the comfortable. Work, in particular, is a favorite subject of Sasse’s, and he shares an incident from his time as president of Midland University that in part inspired him to write his book.

Some students were asked to decorate a 20-foot Christmas tree. They decorated the bottom seven or eight feet, the part that was easy to reach, and then quit without even looking for a ladder.

Writes Sasse: “I simply couldn’t reconcile the decision to leave while the work was still incomplete with how my parents had taught me to think about assignments. I couldn’t conceptualize growing up without the compulsion — first external compulsion, but over time, the more important internal and self-directed kind of compulsion — to attempt and to finish hard things, even when I didn’t want to.”
I completely agree that calling it quits like these students did is pitiful. But I think Sasse comes down too hard on millennials. He fails, for instance, to point out that my generation volunteers more than previous generations and that we’re on track to become the most educated generation in U.S. history. That’s awfully adult of us, I’d say.

Maybe adulthood has more than one definition

Sasse reveres “gritty work experiences” such as farm and ranch work, which he did as kid and which he now ships his own kids off to do in the summer for the construction of their character.

While I would agree that learning the value of hard work is laudable, even critical, and that there are too many people of all ages piddling unproductively on their digital devices, Sasse leaves himself open to some ridicule here.

For starters, less than 2 percent of the American population works in agriculture today. Mark Zuckerberg has probably never driven a tractor — nor even dug a hole — but he built Facebook from scratch. He’s not only shaped the course of human history, last year his company had revenue of $28 billion and today he’s worth nearly $60 billion. And, by the way, he and his wife have pledged to give 99 percent of their Facebook fortune to charity. That’s accomplishment. That’s principled. And last year, a GoDaddy survey found that 40 percent of millennial professionals worldwide consider him their biggest role model.
Moreover, the senator could be accused of fretting over upper-middle-class problems. While he’s concerned about his privileged children learning the lessons of good work, his critics might say there are still plenty of Americans simply looking for good-paying work.
As I said, there’s a lot to like about Senator Sasse’s book. But I don’t think the American adult is vanishing, at least not at any greater rate than in eras before. I think there have always been responsible, hard-working people and less responsible, less hard-working people. Perhaps adulthood looks a little different today and, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Jennifer Pagliara is a financial adviser with CapWealth Advisors.