In the course of raising three children with his wife, Melissa, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska saw a “coming-of-age crisis” among the nation’s youth, which he sets out to fix with his new book, “The Vanishing American Adult” (St. Martin’s). In this excerpt from the book, he looks at how the concept of work has changed over the generations and why kids today need to experience and embrace “work pain” in order to fully grow up …
My grandmother Elda Krebs Sasse was a giant, though she stood barely 4 feet, 11 inches and probably never tipped the scales at a full 100 pounds. She never raised her voice — except to break into what her six sisters called her infectious “cackle-laughing” — yet her personality always found a way to dominate the room.
One of nine kids born to a second-generation immigrant family in windy, rural Diller, Neb. (population 327), Grandma grew up poor, working the family farm during the Great Depression. It was at home — and thus work — that she met my grandfather, who was hired as a farm boy by her dad in the 1930s. They were married in May 1941, him at age 22 and her 21.
Their first leased home had no indoor plumbing or running water. Their plot of land was north of town on Commercial Road, where they planned to start their own corn and bean farm. Just as they were settling down, World War II started up, and Grandpa was on his way to Europe. He would serve for over three years, with stops in Germany and England, as a wartime “mayor” of a regional factory town in the latter.
Grandma had just given birth to their first baby, my uncle Roger. With Elmer in Europe, she had no choice but to run the farm they had just leased. Though she’d grown up on a farm, she’d never driven a tractor. Fall was coming, and no one else was coming to do the work. So she jerry-rigged a way to attach the baby’s bassinet to the side of the lumbering old John Deere as she taught herself to harvest.
Elda regarded this fact as 100 percent uninteresting. “It was simply what needed to be done.” I know this story not because she ever thought to offer it but because I was always interrogating my grandparents for war stories as a child.
There was a matter-of-factness about them that, in fact, wasn’t extraordinary for much of their generation. This nose-to-the-grindstone, get-it-done attitude can still be heard today in conversations about work and callings with many aging members of the Greatest Generation I encounter.
Americans long regarded work differently than the rest of the world, but that difference is slipping away. Our national forebears had an almost compulsive preference for productivity over passivity.
“There is probably no people on earth with whom business constitutes pleasure, and industry amusement, in an equal degree with the inhabitants of the United States of America,” observed the Englishman Francis Grund in the mid-1830s. “Active occupation is not only the principal source of their happiness and the foundation of their national greatness, but they are absolutely wretched without it.”
The Puritan work ethic — and its cousins “Yankee ingenuity” and later “rugged individualism,” which would be truly achieved only when America had worked through its original sin of slavery — helped form a shared identity for the American people. It was an almost liturgical touchstone that all Americans, across geography, race, gender and denomination, came to esteem together.
Our ancestors’ suspicion of leisure endured until the dawn of the 20th century, when the Industrial Revolution delivered vast wealth and efficiencies along with a growing middle class that didn’t need to work as hard to subsist. The change wasn’t just that material surplus can breed materialism and sloth. It is also that material abundance and economies of scale, despite all their benefits, also often make our work less meaningful and more disconnected and robotic. Industrial life is fundamentally different from the neighborly work of the village.
Matthew Crawford wrote about this in his 2009 book “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” arguing that a cultural shift away from teaching “the trades” — the sort of skilled labor people go to vocational school or community college to learn — has made people more passive and dependent, less aware of the satisfaction of completing any manual task well. “What ordinary people once made, they now buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves replacing an entire system because some minute component has failed.” Our global systems of production have radically reduced the prices of almost everything, but they have also come at the cost of promoting a new mentality that everything is disposable.
“If the modern personality is being reorganized on a predicate of passive consumption,” Crawford writes, “this is bound to affect our political culture.” It’s also bound to erode Americans’ desire and ability to work hard, to atrophy our drive toward larger, common projects.
In the summer of 2016, the hashtag #firstsevenjobs began trending on Twitter. People from all walks of life started listing and celebrating their first seven jobs: “Assembly-line worker; dishwasher; truck driver; editor; think-tank fellow; author; professor.” Another: “Burger King cashier; waitress at Poppin’ Fresh Pies; filing clerk; cold caller for a stock broker; banker; director of credit; CFO.”
I am a “first jobs” nerd. I ask friends and strangers, candidates interviewing for jobs and random Nebraskans at sporting events: What was your first job? What was the first hard thing you completed? What is the single hardest thing you’ve ever done?
My first seven jobs were:
· Bean walker
· Lemonade sales
· Stadium pop sales
· Corn detasseler
· Bike buyer-seller
· Roguing (corn, again)
· Lifeguard/swim lesson
Most kids who have detasseled will tell you it’s the hardest job they’ve ever done. I remember days when I’d come inside in the afternoon, fall asleep and sleep straight through until the next morning when the alarm went off at 4:30 again. But, despite the suffering, the money was great for a 13-year-old: minimum wage plus a retroactive bonus of 15 cents an hour if you never missed a day.
Melissa and I think it’s important for our kids to learn how to suffer. Some might hear that phrase as unloving but it is actually the opposite. Neither our children nor your children will grow up to be free, independent, self-respecting adults if we hand them everything without the expectation of something in return.
Our friend helped us find a place where an earthy old rancher and his wife and three grown children and a new grandbaby lived and worked. We left her with little advice other than to make us proud by working hard, to ask for coaching and to never let her overseers hear her complain.
March in Nebraska is calving season. That’s when heifers give birth. It’s one of the busiest times of a rancher’s year — and a perfect time for a young girl to learn the ropes and add some genuine value.
Once she settled in, she would send me regular text messages about what she had done that day. Because many of her texts were funny, I began to tweet some of them out (my Twitter account is @bensasse) with #FromTheRanch. One of the recurring lessons was that calving is dirty, smelly and wet work.
Got an orphaned heifer to take her whole bottle. (Also got tons of nose slime & snot on my jeans.)
My day: Learned to coil barbwire; backed trailer w/ 4wheeler; & dropped 2 cows for slaughter.
To the cows we left for slaughter in Wausa I said: ‘We are done feeding you. Now it’s your turn to feed us.’
As the month wore on, my impromptu #FromTheRanch tweets attracted attention. As I traveled Nebraska over the next couple months, just about everyone I met wanted to talk about my daughter’s experiences on the ranch.
Parents wanted to know how they could make their kids suffer, too. I found this unexpected but repeated questioning strangely comforting. Parent after parent wanted advice: How could their kid get a similar wake-up-call experience?
The huddles of these anxious parents convinced me that there is a deep desire for a broader conversation about the cultural challenges of passing a meaningful work ethic on to the rising generation.
Many of our young people remain overachievers, of course. In his 2014 book “Excellent Sheep,” retiring Yale professor William Deresiewicz describes students at America’s elite schools as “smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost.”
He suggests that although many adolescents can fill page after page of a résumé, they have “little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”
So much of our culture works against this intentional embrace of work.
In our effort to develop our kids’ talents, to provide them with a set of extracurricular experiences even more impressive than our own to help them stand out from the rest of the college-bound crowd, many of us might be unintentionally displacing lifelong “eulogy virtues” in favor of mere “résumé virtues.”
Yet, unwittingly, so much of our culture works against this intentional embrace of work. Soon after my retweets about Corrie’s time at the ranch appeared, multiple lawyers contacted me to let me know that we had probably violated labor laws by allowing our 14-year-old to work on that cattle ranch.
My wife and I hadn’t thought for a moment that we might be running afoul of any Department of Labor edicts and mandates — nor had the ranchers or their grown children who have worked with cattle for decades. But upon further digging, it turns out that some existing state and federal laws make it very difficult for teens to develop good work habits and the beginner skills needed in the marketplace.
In effect, the laws exist to do everything possible to prevent 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds from working, whether it’s limiting shifts to four hours or capping a teen’s work week at three nonconsecutive days. Government policies presume the centrality — and almost exclusivity — of schooling in the upbringing of our adolescents.
These well-meaning rules can thus unhelpfully exacerbate the challenge of intentional parenting by foreclosing the options available to parents and kids who aim to build character and hone their self-discipline through productive work experiences. Please do not misunderstand: I’m not in favor of repealing child-labor laws. But the older American ethic — of teaching kids why good work rather than the absence of work will make them happy — must be recovered in order to serve our kids better.
By Ben Sasse New York Post