In the canon of internet thinkpieces, there is perhaps no tradition more time-honored than telling millennials just how awful they are. For years, Americans who happened to be born between 1980 and 2000 have been told that we are avocado-munching, cortado-chugging, Pepto-Bismol-pink-wearing, manbun-sporting, Kelvin-filtering nitwits whose narcissism is only outweighed by our aversion to any form of social or professional responsibility. In short, the consensus is that millennials are terrible.
There are more than a few issues with this depiction — for starters, it reeks of persnickety, "get off my lawn" youth-shaming, and it fails to take into account the numerous economic issues, such as crippling student debt, that plague millennials, preventing them from beginning their adult lives in earnest. Yet as millennials have come of age, there's a lingering anxiety among people of the baby boomer generation that millennials will spawn avocado-munching, selfie-taking, entitled assholes as well.
Ben Sasse's new book The Vanishing American Adult is a crystallization of this fear. The junior Republican senator from Nebrasha has written a book that the National Review describes as a "parenting guide" for weak-willed, mun-wearing parents in the "everyone gets a trophy" generation. "Our kids are not ready for the world they are soon going to inherit," Sasse, a father of three, writes. The reason for this? Millennials, who have been spoiled rotten and are in turn spoiling their kids.
To anyone even remotely familiar with conservatism, Sasse's prescription for this is predictable: Instead of urging children to follow their bliss and take improv classes, Sasse encourages us to promote a strong "work ethic" and an emphasis on productivity over mindless consumption of Cheetos and Caillou. Recommended activities to encourage this work ethic include working on a cattle ranch and administering rectal exams to pregnant cows, which he proudly describes his 14-year-old daughter doing.
If you're a parent who doesn't have immediate access to pregnant cows, don't worry — Sasse has plenty of other parenting wisdom for you, per the National Review:
American kids, Sasse notes, while citing plenty of disturbing statistics, are often over-medicated, hooked on screens, failing to venture out into the world, losing touch with religious faith, and increasingly “intellectually fragile.” It’s a “coming of age” crisis, he argues, and “these problems are very significantly the result of broader cultural assumptions that made parenting, paradoxically, more time consuming and ever-present...and yet simultaneously less goal-oriented.”
As an avocado-munching, cortado-chugging millennial parent who was raised in the "everyone gets a trophy" generation, I am ostensibly the target audience of Sasse's book. And to a certain extent, I agree with the contention that millennials were overly indulged growing up (the fact that I had a Beanie Baby collection in the triple digits alone is proof of that fact). Yet while his brand of aw-shucks, DIY, pick-yourselves-up-the-bootstraps parenting might appeal to those who are skeptical of hippie-dippie parenting trends, when you strip his argument down to its bare borns, it quickly reveals itself to be little more than another tool for millennial-shaming — or, worse, a throwback to a conservative ideology that is not only regressive, but toxic.
At its root, Sasse appears to believe that the problem with kids today (a phrase he does not use verbatim, but resonates throughout his text, accompanied by the mental image of a toothless curmudgeon shaking his liver-spotted fist), is a lack of work ethic. This is an accusation that is often thrown around by conservatives and middle-aged men on business trips who you get drunk with at airport hotel bars. The term ostensibly hearkens back to a kinder, simpler time, a time when labor laws were nonexistent and wide-eyed orphans regularly lost their extremities in button-making machines.
Yet it's difficult to figure out where, exactly, Sasse gets the idea that millennial parents aren't raising their kids with a "work ethic" to begin with. While not all parents make their children help around the house, according to a 2016 study, more than 90 percent of kids who get a weekly allowance do household chores, ostensibly teaching children an important (and, luckily for Sasse, overtly capitalist) lesson that hard work will yield a monetary payoff. Further, it could be argued that the swirl of extracurriculars children participate in — such as the soccer team that the National Review mocks — also teaches kids the important lessons of teamwork, collaboration, and goal-oriented success.
The issue isn't that kids aren't being instilled with a proper work ethic. It's that Sasse apparently doesn't see the activities parents are using to teach them this ethic as worthwhile. His tastes toward 10 and under recreation seem to run more toward hard labor, such as coal-mining or working as a stevedore.
Millennials have been stuck in purgatory between adolescence and adulthood, but that's not due to a Peter Pan-esque to grow up — it's due to a confluence of economic and social factors ensuring they don't have the financial means to do so.
Sasse also is concerned that kids are getting too much screen time, apparently believing that we are raising a generation of bleary-eyed, bent-headed zombies who are too distracted by their phones to properly engage with the real world. While some of this anxiety is merited — an American Academy of Pediatrics study from last year recommended less than 2 hours of exposure to digital media per day — the pearl-clutching over millennials being hooked on screens ignores the reality of how many of our interactions are actually taking place on mobile devices these days. In a world where kids at the third-grade level are learning how to read via iPad and where Slack has replaced workplace meetings, if you want to raise kids who are successful and productive, it is not only unrealistic to advocate for an aversion to technology, but an impediment to someone's employment prospects. Luddism might have its place as a neocon book marketing technique, but it doesn't have its place in the school or the workplace.
The argument that kids are over-medicated is also an incredibly dangerous one. As the stigma surrounding mental illness slowly evaporates, we are increasingly having a long overdue conversation about depression and anxiety and the havoc it can wreak on both adults' and children's lives. The idea that medication is preventing American kids from achieving their full potential does a huge disservice to the 10 percent of Americans who have benefited tremendously from being on medication — and who, in some cases, have had their lives saved by psychotropic drugs. Perpetuating the idea that millennials are too drugged out to be of much use to society perpetuates mental health stigma and encourages them not to seek the help they need.
The problem with Sasse's argument is not that millennials and their children need to be more independent and better equipped to deal with the rigors of the outside world. He's right; they do. What's deeply wrong with it is that he refuses to acknowledge the tough card millennial parents have been dealt, such as the crippling student debt issue, the mortgage crisis, or the ever-winnowing employment market. Millennials have been stuck in purgatory between adolescence and adulthood, but that's not due to a Peter Pan-esque to grow up — it's due to a confluence of economic and social factors ensuring they don't have the financial means to do so.
Further, Sasse seems willfully blind to the fact that race and class play a role in the options available to millennial parents. Instead, he prefers to rail against the dangers of parents hovering around soccer practices, while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge that many millennial parents can't afford soccer practice at all. (In fact, according to a New York Times review, Sasse takes on the incomprehensible position of denying that racial and class disparities exist, writing that the United States is now “free of the racist legal barriers that held back many Americans” and is “finally transcending our slaveholding past," which, in light of the existence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, is kind of like being caught in a snowstorm and insisting it's a balmy 85 degrees.)
Among conservatives, there is a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the role social conditions play in setting millennials up to fail; there is only the intense focus on our alleged failure itself.
But the biggest problem with demonizing immature, entitled millennials — for raising immature, entitled children — is the insistence that teaching your kids to follow their own bliss and teaching them to be smart, capable, tough, independent adults are mutually exclusive. They are not, and they never will be. You can teach your kids the value of "character" and "hard work" and still give them Prozac and an iPad; you can make your kid take out the trash and also sign them up for ballet lessons, even though they have zero coordination and keep pooping in their tutus. Chances are they'll be more well-rounded and independent as the result of having both of those experiences.
Among conservatives, there is a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the role social conditions play in setting millennials up to fail; there is only the intense focus on our alleged failure itself. The problem isn't that we're raising mollycoddled, entitled, sheltered kids. The problem is that previous generations have created a world that is so polarized and hostile, so primed for us to fail, that we do not feel comfortable letting our children out on their own, so they can forge their own identities. And whether he realizes it or not, Sasse is perpetuating that problem.