Agency & "Failure to Launch"


Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, a former university president, published a book last year: The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance. It made The New York Times bestseller list. In his introduction, Senator Sasse writes: 

 A friend recently shared that he and his wife have become increasingly worried about their kids. They have a 10-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl who are, by almost any measure, dream kids. They are respectful toward adults, have good friendship networks, work diligently at school, and get top grades. Other parents often comment on how they wish their kids were more like my friend's. But he and his wife are focused on behavior that occurs at home outside the public gaze, namely, their 10-year-old's obsession with YouTube and their 14-year-old's penchant for spending endless hours paging through social media updates and re-watching episodes of The Office.

'This probably sounds familiar to most parents, but my friend's angst stung more when he explained the primary reason why he and his wife have begun to worry. Sure, like all of us they are concerned about screen time being addictive and changing kids' brains. They worry that social media can produce bullying or depression. But their ache is deeper: They are scared of a behavioral change they're observing. They've noticed that all of this screen time seems to imbue their kids with a zombie-like passivity. They detect a decline of agency, of initiative, of liveliness.

Oddly, while the kids know and admit that they are much happier doing other things—playing with friends,  throwing a baseball, taking a hike, accomplishing something tangible—they can't find the initiative to get started on these activities on their own. They will do these other things, but only when their parents take the lead in arranging them. In the absence of intervention, the kids remain passive. My friend often arrives home from work (his wife also works but gets home earlier) to find his wife starting on dinner and the kids sprawled out on the floor or couch, their facial expressions blank; attempts to engage them are met with only vague recognition that a conversation is taking place. Even their physical bearing seems to have been altered during these times—normally alert and engaged, they now seem tired, listless, enervated. My friend wasn't complaining; he was actually scared: How will they possibly make it on their own? What magic moment after age 14 will lead them to suddenly switch from passivity to the responsibility-taking of adulthood?

[...]There are forces bigger than any one family at work here: societal affluence that allows us to "entertain ourselves to death," changes in technology, the radical separation of the household and thus kids' upbringing from exposure to meaningful work, and a broader cultural amnesia about child-rearing that makes it harder for individual families to inculcate a sense of self-reliance. How do we awaken an aspiration to self-disciplined independence when the neighbors' kids are almost all suffering from the same affluenza?

Of course, Senator Sasse has traded the academe for Congress. So many will be inclined to dismiss the book... well, just because. Still the senator examines a problem that deserves non-partisan attention—a problem the QBE European Leadership School exists to address in a powerfully effective three-week course. Read "Why the ELS," here.