In a recent review of Ben Sasse’s book, The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance, B. D. McClay writes a beautiful critique that largely misses the point of the book.
McClay’s primary point of contention seems to be that Sasse is arguing for an atomistic individualism, where adulthood is fundamentally about doing it all yourself — as if adults should just be bigger toddlers who stubbornly refuse assistance (“I do it myself!,” they exclaim as they clumsily attempt to stack the teetering blocks with chubby fingers.) She sums up her rejection of Sasse’s thesis in her final paragraph with a conjecture:
Suppose adulthood were not synonymous with independence, not synonymous with working, not synonymous with grit or with achievement. Suppose adulthood is instead about accepting dependence, that you can’t take care of everything on your own, that you have limits; suppose the story we need is not the one about the worker who always says yes, but the person who is willing to say no—to the boss, to the job, to work.
McClay’s supposition is based on the assertion she makes in the following sentences that work is going away, so we must adapt to a work-free future. That claim in itself is an immense and dubious belief that (a) runs counter to Sasse’s own argument, (b) is highly debated among theorists and (c) ignores the reality that even though technology is expected to disrupt the workplace significantly, humans will never get away from work. (Ask any parent of a young child. Parenting is hard work.) McClay would have done better to begin her argument by asserting she disagrees with a sub-point of Sasse’s broader argument because she believes work is going the way of the dodo. Instead, she argues against a misreading of Sasse’s main premise by asserting that this book is fundamentally about achievement, absolute independence, or total submission to one’s employer.
McClay’s critique will likely seem attractive to a sympathetic audience who have not read the book. After all, the subtitle of the book talks about “a culture of self-reliance,” and Sasse likes to reference Tocqueville a lot. And, Tocqueville, at points, recognizes and seems to celebrate the atomized individualism within early America. Were Sasse actually arguing for each person being an island unto themselves who has no obligation to neighbor, the critique would be warranted. Perhaps Sasse offers too few qualifications against such error. It may be possible that this book could be read as an exhortation to a Randian independence, especially if someone only read the introduction, first chapter or so and the afterword with care. Such a reading, however, seems unfair to Sasse’s broader argument.
A thorough reader of the entirety of Sasse’s book should recognize that he is clearly not talking about the glorification of material success, absolute independence from community or unthinking submission to the lure of work. In fact, McClay’s critique too narrowly focuses on a brief illustration about Boxer from Orwell’s Animal Farm and surprise that Sasse didn’t cite one of her favorite authors, William James. But Sasse’s disputed reading of a character is only a couple of lines in a 280 page book, and he merely seems to be saying that his grandparents’ impressive work ethic echoes Boxer’s “’aw-shucks’ demeanor.” And arguing Sasse missed out by not debating William James seems petty; this is a popular book, he does not comprehensively cite his sources and it is possible for someone to have a legitimate point without having read your favorite author.
McClay’s critique is warranted against a broad swath of people in our culture, some of whom are celebrating Sasse’s book for the wrong reasons, but it is largely misdirected against Sasse’s book.
Within The Vanishing American Adult, there are obvious signs Sasse is not speaking about some sort of absolute self-reliance, whatever the subtitle seems to indicate. His chapter about seeking intergenerational community emphasizes mutual dependence, which is encouraged by keeping people of different ages and different needs together. Sasse’s discussion of work emphasizes the goodness of work when it makes a contribution to the common good. He emphasizes the goodness of recreation, which runs contrary to McClay’s depiction. Also, far from worshipping success which relies on a materialist notion of independence, Sasse specifically argues that humans should consume less and focus on the priorities of faith, family, community, even prior to work for the benefit of others. These are the keys to happiness, not the independence drawn from material well-being.
A certain degree of self-reliance is, however, necessary for community to flourish. In the traditional Baptist rite of the church potluck, the community relies on people to bring sufficient food to meet the needs of a large population. There is always someone, often the young bachelor (that was me, once), who brings an unopened can of baked beans as a contribution. The potluck works when enough people are sufficiently self-reliant to bring enough food so that everyone—even the baked-bean bachelor—can eat. If the majority of attendees, however, simply brings an unopened can of food or nothing at all, the community will collapse.
Or, to shift metaphors, a tent relies upon the rigidity of its poles. Each one, independently, must be able to stay rigid to support the structure, though the tent cannot provide shelter without other poles. This is a form of necessary self-reliance that enables community. That is, I believe, what Sasse is arguing for.
A better critique of Sasse’s book would be that he should have been more explicit about arguing for a culture of “mutual contribution.” He does so, but his message apparently got lost to some readers because of the rhetorical baggage of the idea of self-reliance. At the same time, our growing cultural problem is not that we have too many people trying to do things on their own, but too few people trying to do things for others. Sasse’s book generally addresses that, but could have been clearer about it from the beginning.