What, Exactly, Is An Adult

This topic has fascinated me for awhile, and it has come rushing to the front of things with the current debates happening in Congress about guns. I have no intention of wading into any debates about guns, and am not going to share any of my opinions on the topic. The only reason I mention them is that is that they provide a current example of the issue I do have interest in discussing – the age of adulthood.

Gun purchases is the currently hot example of the debate on age. The context of the moment is this: Should we restrict gun purchases to those at least twenty-one years of age. Which brings me back to the question of just what, exactly, is an adult?

In one sense, the description of an adult is easy: it is someone who is not a minor. There – aren’t you glad you asked? The concepts of “minority” and “majority” were used at common law in England, a legal system which the United States largely adopted. Once upon a time the common law recognized that those under 7 were pure children, while those between 7 and 14 were older and were to be held somewhat more responsible for their actions. Those over 14 were presumed to have the ability to act like adults, but the full age of majority was 21.

This was important in deciding to what standard a youth should be held certain activities, because an individual was always responsible for his own actions. The only question is whether the youth was of an age to appreciate the risks of certain conduct. Determining negligence in the handling of horses or farm implements were common contexts in the old common law cases. In other words, there are some risks that a 6 year old should not be expected to understand, but that a 14 year old should. This is most likely the traditional basis for an age between 14 and 21 when a driver’s license should issue – the common age of 16 is old enough that the kid should have an understanding of the risks of handling a car and therefore be held responsible for errors in judgment.

The example above – the 16 year old driver – was most likely based originally on ideas about liability and responsibility rather than the exercise of rights. Only when governments began to issue licenses for driving did a person’s rights come into play. There is old case law in Indiana from the 1930’s that held that whether a youth had a driver’s license or not had no bearing on his liability for an accident – he was either negligent or he was not, and therefore whether that young driver was licensed or not was irrelevant.

The actual “age of majority” was a different concept from that above. Majority was when individuals were actual, legal adults, and could do things like own property and enter into legal contracts. Below that age of majority (be it 18, 21 or something else) a person was (and is) below the age for the exercise of all legal rights. To this day, a minor is not legally capable of owning property. You know that savings account your parents opened for you when you were 10 years old? It was actually theirs and not yours.

At some point, we in the U.S. began messing with the concept of majority, coming up with different ages for different purposes. Compulsory schooling is over at 18 in most places now, as is the ability to vote and to be subject to the military draft. But the right to buy and consume alcoholic beverages is not reached until 21. And this is not a modern phenomenon – the “age of consent” above which a man could not be charged with statutory rape has bounced all around from 10 to 18, depending on the location and era. If you ever wondered what the term “Sweet Sixteen originally meant, now you know.

But here is my question: If a person is allowed to vote, own property, marry and do virtually every other thing that an adult can do (to the point that “adulthood” is almost universally described legally as Age 18 these days) then by what right does one group of adults gang up on a smaller, younger group of adults to say “You are not allowed to …” whatever that thing is, such as the purchase of a Colt 45 (of either the liquid or the solid variety).

I am fully aware of the general state of knowledge that the human brain is still developing for most people at age 18, and I understand that there are good reasons why some activities should be reserved for those with a few more years behind them. But when we boil down the concept to its essence, what is to stop a majority of a legislative body (virtually all of whom will be over 35) from passing a law outlawing certain activities for someone who is 22 or 36 or even 29?

It seems to me that the separation of some phases of adulthood from other phases of adulthood does not work really well with our legal framework and our conceptions of individual liberty. I guess my conclusion is that I don’t really care at what age a person becomes an adult – 16, 18, 21 or something else. Having moved well beyond any of those ages, I have horse in the race, so to speak. But what I do care about is how we come to that decision.

One of the biggest problems in law is that so many statutes are passed, rules enacted or cases decided because of a particular outcry. Something bad happens and there is a great human urge to “do something.” There is an old expression – hard cases make bad law. It seems to me that a larger debate should be had – what is the age of majority going to be? Restricting rights to someone below that age is an easy and non-controversial matter. Making that decision for all people and for all purposes is something we all have at least some control over, if only through the political process. But restricting the rights of someone who is an adult (especially rights guaranteed in the Constitution) purely on the basis of age is the kind of thing that is sure to be decided eventually by 9 people in black robes. And that is a process that we have no control over whatsoever.

Image Credit:

Graphic illustrative of the human aging process found online at drvidyahattangadi.com

25 thoughts on “What, Exactly, Is An Adult

  1. You’ve also indirectly hit upon that other human foible – letting emotion overtake reason in decision making.

    Reading this, I started to wonder about the inverse of this…let’s suppose some legislative body decided anyone over a given age, say 75, could no longer own a vehicle or they could no longer decide upon their financial matters. Why? Well, don’t the faculties needed for driving diminish with age? Aren’t people of a certain age the perpetual targets of scams? These people have obviously demonstrated a lesser aptitude, thus they should not be allowed to do (fill in the blank).

    Would that not be considered age discrimination? It’s a knife that cuts both ways, but it appears cutting one way is much easier than is the other.

    Voting or being drafted at 18 while not being allowed to purchase alcohol until 21 (in most states) has never made sense. And the situational adjustment of what constitutes adulthood makes no sense either, especially when politically motivated.

    That’s just my $0.02, of which I may have some change coming back to me. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jason, I’m 68 this year, and based on watching older folks I worked with make monumental mistakes, been technically robbed by internet and telephone scammers, and get into accidents almost everytime they drive; I’m not quite sure that I’m horrified about your suggestion that maybe after a certain age, there needs to be some kind of competency test for elders. I came back to the mid-west to watch out for my Mom after my Dad passed and she easily jumped right into having a full blown computer set-up and internet connect (since she was proficient due to her ATT employment), but I lived in mortal and financial fear of her interactions on the internet. Unless your 80+ year old grandparents or parents were raised in sort of tough town of scammers and have a hard shell, they have zero filters that guard them against just haplessly believeing almost anything presented to them. My mother was always horrified when telephone solicitors called and I listened for half a second and hung up on them. She didn’t believe you should treat people that called you like that, and in her day, no one would have tried to call her and get her vital information. That’s why the old get prayed upon, and someone should be watching out for them!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I have dim memories of 21 being a general age of adulthood in all things other than the military draft – it was certainly voting age. I think it was around the time of the Viet Nam war that the voting age was reduced to 18. I am sure there was no political calculations by a political party that sought more voters at all. [sarcasm off]. I agree with you that drinking and voting should probably be tied to the same age. The military draft is an interesting issue – a draft at 18 has certain benefits of getting young, relatively enthusiastic manpower for defense purposes, a use for young men that probably doesn’t have much need for maturity.

      I have never researched whether military drafts typically conscripted minors or not. That would be an interesting project. I think when there is an attacking enemy, a government probably doesn’t care much about whether a guy has reached majority or not, but is instead concerned with whether he can shoot.

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  2. Being well past that age range myself, I must admit to not having thought about it very much. Except for the recent example that my daughter went to university in Ottawa, which is just across the river from Quebec where the legal drinking age is 18. But I didn’t devote too much thought to it, because Erin is adult enough to handle it.

    Which brings me to my point, which is that adult functions better as an adjective in this context rather than a noun. I know some teenagers who are very adult, and some folks my age who are not very adult at all. Of course the adjective use doesn’t help much in the legal realm, but it does point in the right direction. The US does desperately need some adult firearm regulation.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You are right that there will always be a wide range in maturity among people at any given age, but especially in the ages under maybe 30. An interesting companion question is whether we have set up a society that discourages maturation. I live in an area of the country where farming is not uncommon. Everyone I ever met who grew up on a farm was uncommonly mature compared to the norm. Kids who are given responsibility at a young age tend, I think, to mature quickly. But in the suburban environments where I and my children have grown up have demanded much less of kids, who seem to take longer and longer to “settle down” and get on with the work of creating and raising the next generation.

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  3. Well, I have the very unpopular opinion that that the legal age for anything ought to be 25. Why? Because I’m over 25 and I said so.
    Actually, I was hoping your article would touch on the very nerve that makes me jump up and scream out loud whenever it comes up. When did adult become a verb? “I am so tired of adulting today.” “I can’t adult today.” etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, I remember when I first heard “adulting” (the verb) from my children. I actually found it funny, but probably not for the reason that they might expect – doesn’t everyone, no matter what age, get tired of “adulting” from time to time? I know I do. But at my age, it is either “adult” or stop existing.

      You also hit on the nub of what it means to live in a democracy. There is probably no reason that any group could be somehow made minors if you could cobble together a sufficiently strong majority to do so. You could probably get a solid majority to declare 25 as the age of majority and make it stick. But then you might have cause to worry a few decades later when those people finally get control of your Social Security benefits. 🙂

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  4. We are all learning that people reaching the age of majority does not carry any guarantee of level of maturity. However, society needs some standard to go by, so it’s 18 or 19, whatever the jurisdiction decides. Then they get to decide again at 80 or whatever to see if you can still remember the rules of the road and demonstrate the ability to drive. Living in a free society means we get certain privileges, and an understanding that we have to abide by common laws, to keep and maintain order. I can’t paint my house purple, I can’t go the wrong way on a highway, I can’t have a grow-op in my house, I need to carry car insurance to drive, and I need permits to do certain things, fishing, hunting, boating whatever. From time to time those laws need to be adjusted (e.g. speed limits) to make adjustments to what is working and what is not. The Youth Offenders Act in Canada prevents people under a certain age (16?) to be named in the media when they commit crimes. That Act was brought in quite a few years ago. Adjustments are brought in to firearms regulations. Changes are made to license plate renewal regulations. The drinking age is moved up or down. Where you can buy beer and liquor is changed. Stores are open or closed due to pandemics. It’s all part of life in a democratic society. If you don’t like something, you get to vote to boot out the government in power if you don’t like the rules. But we don’t get to make up our own rules as we see fit.

    Liked by 1 person

    • These things are all true – except that my neighbors did choose a really dark eggplant color for their shutters and garage door awhile back.

      Rules are certainly a basic requirement in any functioning society. But I sometimes wonder if we have crossed into a place where there are not more of them than necessary (or that they are more arbitrary than they should be). Like with your example of a permit to go boating. What, actually, is the reason that the government should decide whether any of us should be allowed to operate a boat? I think an awful lot of those rules come from either 1) the need for revenue or 2) a reaction to some tragedy where someone did something fatally stupid with a boat. I guess that is a pet theory of mine that we have too many laws that have resulted from #2, which eventually becomes more of a patchwork of parental-style edicts than a coherent set of principles.

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  5. Part of our problem is that, unlike some “primitive cultures”, we don’t have a definite “Rite of Passage” when one becomes fully an adult in one ritual or ceremony. In our culture, driving a car (16); “legally” being an adult (18); the drinking age (21); do it in steps. Waiting to graduate from college delays adulthood further. Now science is telling us that the human brain doesn’t fully mature until age 25 (some say 30!) Then there’s the church’s Rite of Confirmation, which occurs earlier. And a Bar Mitzvah is what, age 13?

    I think the bigger problem is that adulthood itself is, on the cosmic time scale, so BRIEF! Life would be much different (and, I believe better) if we could live to be, say 150-200 years. (Not to mention the 700-900 year lifespans of Genesis!) I mentioned this to somebody once, and he said, “Yeah, but if you’re a farmer, would you really want to plow the same field 200 times? Or would you want to work in the same office cubicle for 150 years?”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh boy, the idea of living to 200 gives me the shivers. I get grouchy enough about the current state of affairs now – imagine what it must be like to deal with those 3 and 4 and 5 generations behind us running things. 🙂

      I think that our society has 18 and the graduation from high school as the defacto “rite of passage” into “adulthood”. But you are right that different parts of society do it differently, such as religion. It is probably true that an unintended consequence of longer lifespans has been an extended period of adolescence as “getting on with life” doesn’t need to start as early.

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  6. I think there are levels of maturity at which we become ready for things, regardless of the age of majority. For example, you can’t be President until you turn 35. There are many reasons for this, but one is to allow for the level of maturity necessary for the office. This sure seems wise.

    There is much room for error in using age to represent maturity, as we all mature at different rates. But because of the bell curve it is a broadly applicable heuristic.

    The age of majority is probably good enough for most situations. For certain riskier situations, I’m okay with setting later ages. Obviously, there will be much contention about what age to select. And it risks having a patchwork of confusing starting ages for things. For example, you can fight and die for your country three years before you can buy a beer in a bar. What? Really? Old enough to serve, old enough to be served, I say!

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    • I think you have hit upon the key – there is a fairly broad range when each person hits max maturity and a range of activities that require a level of maturity, and hitting the sweet spot where they all come together is tough.

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  7. I’m not going to be the only one commenting on here, I’m sure, that will bring up the idea that age has zero relationship to level of responsibility one can handle. Like many things in the United States (and I’m sure many other countries), set “ages” for responsibility were generally decided many decades ago when we were marching lock-step into our future with mono-cultures of very similar experiences and education. Virtually none of that exists today. On a daily basis I see people who are in their 30’s that shouldn’t be able to leave the house without a qualified handler (hell, I’ve had to manage some of them!).

    10 years ago, a friend that works for my city school system told me that she had her first class that had zero original parents, they were all being raised by older systers, aunts, grandparents, etc. My city has a 62% highschool graduation rate (and you sure as all hell don’t need to be a genius to get through highschool), and of that, only 12% go on to any higher education, including trade school. Meanwhile, the wealthy suburbs and ex-urbs are chugging along with higher grad rates and education levels than 50 years ago, while more metropolitan areas are raising a nation of imbeciles! There is no short term fix.

    There are large quantities of people in our society that can’t begin to understand “adult responsibility” and what that means. I remember hearing a program on NPR in Chicago where they were saying that when they try and bring people into the employment world, they sometimes have to teach them how to buy an alarm clock, set it, and get up to go to work. They really don’t have a concept of what that means! Literally, it’s like trying to explain cold fushion to you.

    I’m not starting a gun argument either but are these people you really don’t care about getting a hold of guns? Every day in my city, quantities of teens steal KIAs, speed through neighborhoods, crashing into regular drivers while running red lights, and killing people on the street. When they are caught, they have zero concept of right or wrong, they’re just sorry they were caught; and when they get out becuase they are under age, they do it again! What kind of “adults” will these be?

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree that the apparent implosion in the family in many areas of the country is a challenge to the assumptions on which our free society rests. Your gun example is a perfect one – there are large areas of the country where a 15 year old has been raised to be responsible and can safely own and use a gun for hunting, target shooting, and the like. Crime is unusual and everyone things this is normal. Then other areas where 15 year olds run wild in gangs and use guns for crimes and for settling personal scores. Crime and murder are everywhere and everyone thinks this is normal. Which of those “normals” a person lives has a lot to with opinions on whether a 15 year old (or an 18 year old or a 21 year old) should be allowed to own a gun.

      With the kinds of social breakdowns you describe (and which are becoming increasingly common) an age of majority becomes a less useful concept.

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  8. Very interesting question, and I enjoyed the legal history here of majority and minority.

    I’ve long been of the opinion that if our government declares that 18 year olds can join our military, then individuals of that age should be classified as adults… period.

    As a father of two middle schoolers, I’ll say how disappointed I am in our school systems, and particularly the lack of personal responsibility being taught in school. A great deal of what used to be regarded as education is now being outsourced to students’ families, and a big problem arises because many students don’t have functional families… meaning that things like taking responsibility for one’s actions, etc. are simply not being taught. This is having a profound impact as these kids grow older and are unaccustomed to accepting responsibility for anything. I know that’s a rant, but its a disturbing trend for me to watch.

    On a lighter note, I recall as a young adult being annoyed that the seemingly last threshold into adulthood was being able to rent a car… which came at age 25 in most cases. I don’t know if that’s still the case, but it really bothered me at the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had forgotten about the car-rental age being higher than almost everything else. Leave it to car rental companies to figure out what “real” adulthood looks like. 🙂 College apartments are much the same way – many of those landlords are fine to rent to an 18 year old — as long as Mom and/or Dad sign the lease too.

      I agree that the disintegration of functioning families has been a slow-rolling disaster. I read an interesting opinion piece awhile back that declared the post WWII norm of “the nuclear family” (Mom, Dad and two-ish kids living on their own and with only tenuous connections to extended family) as a flawed concept from the start. The argument was that for at least the last couple of millenia “the family” was more akin to a large clan that lived in close proximity and often worked together in a common enterprise. The modern nuclear family, so went the argument, lacks the structural strength so hang together and perpetuate the society’s values. I had never seen this argument made and it is an intriguing one.

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  9. People are always going to get around the age restrictions and “buck the trend” – it used to be a big thing for store owners to get busted for selling alcohol or tobacco to minors. I’d read in the local paper how an owner lost their license permanently for doing so. Perhaps we have bigger fish to fry now with gun control and enforcements of rules and regs simply don’t happen – not even a hand slap. As to age issues, a former co-worker and I were e-mailing one another and she mentioned she had to go take a road test to renew her driver’s license. When I asked why she said because of her age. She lives in Ontario and is over 80. I was surprised at that.

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