We are living in an increasingly adult adolescent society where adolescents are setting the trends and tastes. Senator Ben Sasse in his new book, The Vanishing American Adult, believes that teenage culture has become the model for American life. It began following World War II, with our sudden abundant wealth and a celebrity-driven popular culture, with its consumerism, secularism, hyper-sexuality, and shirking of responsibilities.
Childhood obesity skyrocketed 500% from one in twenty teens in the early 1960s to more than one in five today. It is estimated that young males have played more than 14,000 hours on video games by the time they reach age 21. And fully one-quarter of Americans between ages 25-29 now live with a parent compared to only 18% over a decade ago. Before 1980, kids rarely were diagnosed with ADHD, OCD, depression, and other mental disorders.
Sasse says parents are largely to blame for churning out indifferent, distracted, passive, dependent young adults by over-managing their lives, He believes young adults are capable of making decisions and acting independently, but recognizes that few of them do. Yet, the responsibility falls back on parents, since they failed to help their children learn to overcome peer pressure, work hard, resist consumption, distinguish between needs and wants, and become fully literate in the classics.
Sasse also thinks public schools have failed by not upholding a rigid classroom curriculum in the liberal arts and enabling students to become informed citizens and understand what our Constitution is all about. Only one-third of American adults know the three branches of government, over 30% couldn’t name even one branch, while 71% weren’t aware that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and between 40 and 50% of Americans between ages 18 to 30 believe the First Amendment is extreme for protecting the right of free speech because doing so might hurt someone else’s feelings.
It’s hard not to be persuaded by Sasse’s thesis that a nation of adult-children cannot be a nation of self-governing people. But how we can teach those who don’t want to learn, those without a modicum of curiosity about the classroom subject before them, those who are morally adrift, chasing pleasure, through binge drinking and casual hookups, and simply don’t know what an adult is, how to become one, and not seeing a reason to even try.
While universities can rightly claim they are educational communities, not therapeutic communities, it seems that they’re getting blamed for all the unresolved mental issues that students bring from home. Campus counseling centers are overwhelmed by increasing demand for student stress, anxieties, and depression. About 30% of college students drop out after their first year while only 40% graduate.
I would argue that in spite of the watered-down curriculum at our universities, that a college education can enlarge one’s perspective and overcome both passive and over-managed parenting. The question that needs to be put to students is simply, “Do you want to be your own person or do what others tell you to do for the rest of your life?” I have yet to hear anyone not commit to the first option.
I would propose that in addition to the material abundance and consumerism following World War II, that a major culprit in teenage drift was the medical model’s invention of ever-increasing discrete mental disorders based upon symptoms. Teenagers were quick to contrive symptoms of a mental disorder to explain their miscreant behavior, relieving them of all responsibility. And parents bought into these new-found mental constructs since it also relieved them of responsibility.
Since the 1980s, insurance companies and Big Pharm have profited on these discrete disorders as a way to limit visits, set pricing and promise quick fixes with medication. We need to abandon the medical model with its multitude of mental disorders to a credible educational model that identifies the symptoms for mental health—the key attributes for self-empowering teenage adults to take responsibility for becoming their own persons. In short, the ability to make choices based upon probable outcomes and corresponding consequences.
The second attribute for mental health is recognizing and reconciling unresolved anger carried over from early childhood, when we were denied getting that special doll or cap pistol. Although largely dormant, most of us carry some degree of unresolved anger—evidenced by our periodic and unexpected episodes, when the lid blows off and uncontrollable rage surfaces. In spite of our rational will, the power of our angry feelings temporarily takes control.
Since we have suppressed our childhood angers toward our parents, fearing retaliation at the time, we rage and act-out on defenseless others—particularly minorities and/or immigrants. This pent-up anger, followed with its self-righteous bullying behavior may well contribute to Americans half-hearted belief in our Bill of Rights and the power of our Constitution.
This blog was co-published with PsychResilience.com