Age, Adulthood, and Voting Rights

Why Eighteen? Age, Adulthood and the Absence of Easy Answers.

When did you become an adult? I ask people this question often, and I’m frequently amazed by the variety of responses that I get. Some people affectionately remember their high school or their university graduation as the day they crossed the threshold into adulthood, while others point to their first full-time job, the day that they moved away from home, or the day that they became a parent. Many people (myself included) are hard pressed to think of a singular moment when they stopped being a “youth” or a “young adult,” and began to think of themselves as “adults” without qualification. Rarely does anyone suggest that they became an adult on their eighteenth birthday, when they reached the legal age of majority. As far as the law is concerned, however, it is at that moment that Americans stop being children, and become fully-fledged citizens, with all of the rights and responsibilities of adults. Reaching the legal age of adulthood, in other words, is not necessarily the same thing as becoming an adult, and the fact that eighteen-year-olds can vote, sign a contract, or get married without their parents’ consent does not make them adults in most Americans’ eyes.

I have always been fascinated by the gap between popular perceptions of what it means to be an adult and adulthood as the law defines it. I remember that when I turned eighteen, the idea that I had gone to bed a child and woken up an adult struck me as absurd – I didn’t feel any different, and nothing about my personality had changed. Looking back on that moment as a graduate student, I began to wonder why the legal boundary between childhood and adulthood had been placed at the age of eighteen. When, how, and why was this decision made? My dissertation seeks to answer these questions, focusing in particular on the 1970s, when state and federal lawmakers lowered key age limits like the voting age and age of majority to eighteen, and dispensed with the common-law tradition of treating young people as adults at twenty-one.

Teenagers often ask why the law deems them adults at eighteen, when they are legally permitted to do things like drive or consent to sex much earlier. Others ask why young Americans must wait three years beyond their eighteenth birthday (until they turn twenty-one) before they can legally purchase alcohol. In recent months, New York City’s decision to raise the minimum age for purchasing tobacco to twenty-one, and the city of Takoma Park, Maryland’s decision to allow sixteen-year-olds to vote in civic elections have generated a renewed public discussion of these questions. And since the year 2000—when psychologist Jeffrey Arnett first proposed the existence of a new life stage of “emerging adulthood”—the notion that young people are taking longer than ever to reach maturity has become increasingly popular. Popular discussions of an alleged “lost generation” of unemployed young people, or of young people who experience “adultolescence” in their twenties tend to blame changing economic and cultural conditions for extending young people’s transition into adulthood. But they also imply that the laws, rules, and institutions that govern young people’s transition into adulthood are fast becoming out of date.

Given these developments, it is not surprising that the American public has begun to show a growing interest in the legal boundaries between youth and adulthood, and in how the current system of minimum age laws came to be. When people ask why young Americans are considered adults at eighteen, however, they often received a deceptively simple answer: that eighteen-year-olds are generally considered mature and responsible enough to make their own decisions, or that it makes sense to grant young people adult privileges around the time they graduate high school. One of the most commonly cited explanations suggests that lawmakers lowered the age of majority to eighteen as a response to the Vietnam War, so that young men who were being drafted would have all of the legal rights of adults.

My dissertation research began with a hunch that each of these explanations was only a piece of the puzzle, and that the real story of how eighteen became the legal age of adulthood was far more complex. As I began my research, however, I was unprepared for just how complicated that story would turn out to be. In the United States, most minimum age laws are a matter of state, rather than federal law. With a few exceptions – such as the 26th Amendment, which set the voting age at eighteen nationwide in 1971 – each state sets these age thresholds independently. In most states, these age limits are defined not by a single “age of majority” law, but by hundreds of different statutes, which dole out different “adult” responsibilities piecemeal, often significantly before or after the official age of majority. Individual states have passed a bewildering variety of these laws, governing everything from the age at which young people can take out a loan or drive a car to the age at which they are eligible to become dentists, or to go boating without a floatation device. For much of the nineteenth and twentieth century, some states even set different age limits for young men and young women. As a result, decisions about different minimum age laws have often been made decades apart, and for a variety of different reasons. Even the omnibus “age of majority” laws of the 1970s – which were supposed to make the legal definition of adulthood more consistent – often contained numerous exceptions, and lawmakers’ rationale for approving these bills was not always immediately clear.

As I searched for a singular, compelling explanation for lawmakers’ placement of minimum age limits, I soon realized that it had been a mistake to think that there was a method to the madness. Taking my cue from legal and psychological literature about adulthood and maturity, I had assumed that minimum age laws would reflect what legal scholar Elizabeth Scott has called a “crude judgment” about young people’s maturity, and their competence to make responsible decisions. I took it for granted that these laws reflected a formal evaluation of the relationship between maturity and age. The passage into adulthood, however, is a messy, chaotic transition. No two young people experience it in quite the same way, or at the same speed. The lawmakers who put our current set of minimum age laws in place were often well aware of this fact. They frequently admitted that they were drawing an essentially arbitrary line, and that no matter where they placed a given age limit, it would leave some young people waiting for adult status long after they’d become mature enough for it, while other young people would be put at risk when they received the privileges of adulthood too soon. Fully conscious that the traditional age of majority of twenty-one was largely a “historical accident,” the lawmakers who lowered the age of majority during the 1970s were substituting one arbitrary age limit for another.

It sounds naïve in retrospect, but when I first began to realize just how subjective and arbitrary these lawmakers’ decisions had been, I was shocked. 1970s lawmakers had not made a concerted effort to actually evaluate the relationship between age and maturity, and they had rarely consulted with medical or academic experts who could have shed light on young people’s readiness for adult status. Instead, legislators’ decisions were often based on their own subjective experiences and perceptions of young people, on political considerations, and on popular attitudes towards young people at the time. Most of them had formed their own opinions about when young people were ready for adult status, and about what the “proper” age of majority should be, long before they entered into political debates on the subject.

I suppose that it must be a common experience among graduate students to find that your research has raised more questions than it answers. To find that the questions you set out to address have no easy answers, or answers that are almost impossibly complex. I speak from experience when I say that this realization can be jarring. For me, it led to a broad re-focusing of my research. I shifted my efforts away from the nuts-and-bolts of legislative decision-making, and focused instead on the much broader and more difficult task of understanding how both lawmakers and the American public felt about young people during the 1970s. I’m confident that this was the correct decision, but it has left me without an easy, satisfying answer to the question that I started with: why eighteen? As a father-to-be, I’m already wondering what I will tell my own children down the road, when they begin to ask why they must wait for their eighteenth birthday before they can legally do any number of different “adult” things. If I start by suggesting that “well, it’s complicated…” I have a feeling that I will get eye-rolls and groans. Sometimes, though, there just aren’t any easy answers. And since I doubt my teen-aged children will want to read my dissertation, I might just have to tell them “because that’s the way it is.”

Timothy Cole
Temple University

Image: Photograph by author.

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