What, exactly, constitutes an adult? There are a number of things a person needs to have in order to function as an adult, certainly. Adults are expected to be responsible, organized, hard-working, conscientious — in other words, able to make it in modern society on their own. But is adulthood simply a sum of these parts, or is it something more?
Well, in the eyes of the law, adulthood is neither. Adulthood is an age. Over 18? Congratulations, you're a grown-up! Under 18? Sorry, kiddo, better go back to Tonka trucks.
There are a whole host of problems with this. One is that this legal age of adulthood is not consistent across nations, meaning that an 18-year-old who is legally an adult in the United States and then moves to Thailand (where the age of majority is 20) has their adulthood snatched out from under them. Another is that the privileges and responsibilities conferred to an adult vary, and furthermore attaining the status of an adult may not actually confer all of these privileges. After all, in the United States, an 18-year-old is considered mature enough to serve in the military but not mature enough to have a glass of wine.
Yet the underlying issue with all of this is that these ages seem completely and utterly arbitrary. I turned 21 this weekend, and I didn’t feel any more adult on my birthday than I did the day before. Choosing an age to define as “adult” like this ignores all the complexities of growing up, all of the trials and uncertainty a person has to undergo before they’re ready to set out on their own in the world and how all of this can happen at different rates. I’ve known 15-year-olds who were completely capable of living wisely and independently, just as I’ve known 20-year-olds who weren’t anywhere close. Defining an age for adulthood, then, becomes something of a guessing game.
In certain circumstances, people are afforded some privileges of adulthood for reasons of practicality rather than actual maturity. For example, the driving age in most parts of the country is 16 — an age that to me seems absurdly low, considering just how dangerous cars can be. Yet in most parts of the country, it’s nearly impossible to get anywhere without a car, making driving a necessary part of existence even for teenagers; in areas where car culture is much less prevalent, such as New York City, intense restrictions are placed on younger drivers, restrictions that would never pass someplace more automotive-friendly.
Yet for the most part, the age at which someone legally becomes an adult is simply something that’s accepted. 18 is the age of adulthood, and we tend to assume that’s how it’s always been (never mind the fact that it hasn’t always been like that, considering that for a good part of the world’s history it was common practice for people to marry in their early teens, and in many places still is), and because that’s when, in general, it’s considered normal and often expected for people to move out of their parents’ house. The age of majority is something that society seemingly landed on by chance and now refuses to let go of.
Why, then, do we stick with it? In the end, it all comes down to the fact that a better option has yet to present itself. It isn’t practically possible to tailor the law individually to every single person and apportion rights and privileges differently based on different levels of maturity. How would the government tell? An exam? I don’t think it would be possible to make an exam that truly tests how mature someone is. A mandatory period of public service required in order to gain legal recognition as an adult? That might help, but it’s completely possible to come out of a public service program without having learned anything at all.
In the end, the arbitrariness of the legal age of adulthood speaks to a more general problem in how the law relates to individuals. A large-scale government simply isn’t able to give each and every person the consideration he or she deserves. This causes the government to have to generalize across populations, which invariably leads to oversights and bad judgements.
But do we really need the government to tell us when we’re grown-ups? Once we recognize that the age at which someone legally becomes an adult is essentially arbitrary, we can begin to judge our maturity based on our own standards. And when we do, we claim a bit more independence for ourselves, and thus grow just a little bit more.
Aidan Bonner is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Weather Report appears alternate Mondays this semester.