Former Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse tells an anecdote about the time his tween and teen children came into their parents’ room in the middle of a cool summer night, announcing that they couldn’t sleep in their own room because the air conditioner wasn’t working. 

Sasse, now president of the University of Florida, grew up with mostly unused central air conditioning because his parents considered it an unnecessary luxury. He and his wife felt “a heavy sense of failure” after this incident because they thought they’d failed to teach their kids the difference between “nice to have” and “need to have.”

It was the sort of thing that Sasse worries is contributing to a society-wide failure to launch, which was the topic of his 2017 book “The Vanishing American Adult.”

Even as I agree with much of what Sasse wrote in that book, I take issue with one major point. It’s not so much the vanishing American adult that is the problem today, but the vanishing American man.

Young women in America have their own struggles — including a mental-health crisis that seems to be worsened, if not caused, by social media — but young women are going to college at rates higher than men. Despite a persistent wage gap, they are out-earning young men in some cities. And young women are less likely than young men to live with their parents.

Meanwhile, young men are falling behind in education, participating less in the job market and fewer are looking for romantic relationships. Brookings Institution scholar Richard Reeves, the author of “Of Boys and Men,” notes that men have four times the risk of suicide than women.

Reeves believes that one of the reasons young men are struggling is the lack of male role models in their lives. Others, including Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, contend that young men are vanishing because our culture is devaluing traditionally masculine virtues and skills.

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As I have previously written, I’m not so much worried about my sons’ masculinity as I am about their maturity. I fear they are growing up in a society that no longer values the time-honored principles of self-reliance and communal purpose, which used to be inextricable from adulthood for both men and women, but now seem optional for men in particular.

There are two main reasons for this, the first ideological and the second economic.

In America today, it seems fashionable to reject facts while elevating feelings, to pursue rights while ignoring responsibilities, and to marginalize measures of achievement while promoting false measures of equity. With the rise of “gentle” parenting, we downplay the virtues of competence, toughness and self-sacrifice, while teaching kids that the world owes them utopian levels of comfort, security and acceptance.

Moreover, we no longer offer our young men any universal incentive to embrace the traditional responsibilities of adulthood. In a culture that values tolerance above all else, many Americans fear being judgmental, particularly of the young. Those who hold unemployed young men to account, such as radio host Dave Ramsey, are often dismissed for their lack of empathy and understanding.

Therefore, we can no longer rely on our fellow Americans to maintain that men who work hard, support families and contribute to their communities are worthy of praise, while those that prefer sloth to industry, porn to relationships, and dependence to self-reliance are worthy of marginalization or censure.

Meanwhile, the economic component of our failure to produce self-sufficient adult men is that many young men no longer buy the American “rags to riches” narrative, which served as an incentive for many of our working-class fathers and grandfathers. As CNN reported, many millennials are worse off than their parents, and in one survey, two-thirds of Americans think the downward mobility trend will continue even as income inequality increases.

Those American men that are not economically secure perceive the widening gulf between their own circumstances and those of their upper-middle class counterparts to be unscalable, and rightly so. Disinvestment in blue-collar workers and simultaneous investment in those whose careers require higher education has left many men, in particular, behind.

Then there’s the fact that many American men have no reason to work toward comfort because they are already comfortable enough living in their parents’ homes. If they see no reason to strive for the betterment of others (having no wife, no family and no sense of a professional vocation serving the broader world), stagnation is the inevitable result.

Of course it is an oversimplification to classify these economic and ideological realities as two separate phenomena. In truth, they produce and reproduce one another in a vicious cycle — one that must be reversed.


I’m still working on that, but as parents of three boys, my husband and I have committed the next decade-plus to figuring it out. 

Elizabeth Grace Matthew (@ElizabethGMat on Twitter) is a freelance writer and editor, an America’s Future Foundation Writing Fellowship alumna and a Young Voices contributor. Her work has appeared in America Magazine, The Hill, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Philadelphia Inquirer.