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When Are You Really an Adult?

We drive at 16, vote at 18, and drink at 21—so when do we actually become adults?

We drive at 16, vote at 18, and drink at 21—so when do we actually become adults?

Why Have Laws About Adulthood at All?

The terrible problem of deciding when anyone is an adult is at once complex and frustrating. There are so many conflicting standards, with numerous and often conflicting reasons given for those standards, as to make any sane person begin ripping out their hair.

First of all, there is a myriad of opinions and opposing viewpoints based on too many individual differences to even think of trying to count. In trying to address a mid-point compromise between all these, laws have been written.

Those laws bring to mind the famous quote often attributed to Abraham Lincoln: "You can't please all of the people all of the time." To this, I have added my own tag-line, based upon personal observations during my years on Earth: ". . .and you can't please some of the people any of the time!" This arose out of something my father used to say upon hearing people continually griping about some petty thing or other: "Some people are only happy if they can find something to complain about."

Faulty Logic by the US Department of Justice

In many countries, the drinking age is much lower than it is here in the USA. In many of those countries, they also have a higher age at which a young person may qualify for a driver's license.

When people try to compare the teen drinking rate in other countries against that in the USA, with its ineffective and essentially failed "war on drugs," they are failing to take these other differences into account, and hence are comparing the proverbial apples and oranges.

See the chart below for this comparison.

Drinking, Driving, and Military Age Requirements by Country


Minimum Drinking Age

Determined by individual provinces; varies between 18 and 19; 16, with supervision,in Alberta

To purchase:16 for beer and wine to purchase, with legal guardian present; 18 for hard spirits. To consume: 14 if with parents, otherwise 16/18 in public establishments

18 to purchase; no true lower limit at home with parents

21 to buy or consume


Minimum Driving Age

16, with supervision; 14, with supervision in Alberta

18; 17 with parental supervision

18; 16 with parental supervision

Varies by state, from 15 to 18; 21 in District of Columbia


Minimum Military Enlistment Age

18; 16 for reserves or military colleges; voluntary

17; voluntary

18; voluntary

18; 17 with parental consent; 16 if junior in High School; voluntary

18; voluntary

Mixed Messages

The trouble in the USA is the identity crisis of sorts created by all sorts of variable ideas about when a person is an adult. To wit:

  • 18 to vote
  • 21 to drink
  • 17-18 to enlist in military
  • 15-18 to drive
  • 12-14 in movie theaters
  • 12 in amusement parks
  • 10-12 in restaurants

It is worth noting that the same thing happens on the opposite end of the spectrum, when trying to qualify as a senior citizen:

  • 50 to join AARP (American Association of Retired Persons)
  • 65 to get social security
  • 62 to get social security (at a permanently reduced rate)
  • 50-65 to qualify for 'senior discounts' at various establishments

Is it any wonder that the USA is full of crazy, mixed-up people? No one knows who they are, what they are, or what programs and rules apply under which conditions!

When Are You Old Enough to Die?

I think some rules need to change. Either the drinking age needs to be lowered to fall into line with military entry age requirements, or the military enlistment age needs to be raised to the legal drinking age.

After all, it seems reasonable to me, that if you are old enough to be sent to a war zone, and possibly die in combat, then you bloody well ought to be old enough to have a damned drink!

As you can see from the chart above, many countries have a lower drinking age, yet fewer problems with teenage DUI auto accidents, because their driving age limit is higher. It gives the kids a chance to mature a bit more.

Besides, in many of those countries, (there were others I looked up, but it made the chart too large), having beer or wine with meals in the home is accepted, and a normal thing. Naturally, alcohol is not given to very young children, but they may be allowed to start sampling by about age 12 or 14. In those cases, the children see responsible drinking, and are allowed samples from time to time, greatly lessening the urge to go have a massive blow-out on the 21st birthday to see what alcohol is all about, or to experiment sneaking about in the shadows beforehand.

My father was French-Canadian; he had a glass of wine with his dinner almost every night. It was the way he was raised.

He told a story of going on an errand with his dad one day, out of town; away from their familiar shops. (All of this was out in the country, where age-checking was casual, at best; and it was also well before the Prohibition boondoggle.) When they stopped for lunch, my dad, who was about 12 at the time, ordered a cream soda, figuring that not being known in the area, he might not be served a beer. On the way home, he had the most ferocious stomach cramps ever, prompting his father to remark, "In the future, you'd better stick to beer!"

Beer consumption by what we call minors was very common in the early days of this country. Beer is made from grain; it was then a way of preserving some of the grain harvest: "liquid bread," if you will.

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I was raised the same way. Allowed small tastes of things at home, so I never had the desire to sneak around to find out what something was like. I was offered beer, but never liked it until after my second child was born.

To this day, I enjoy a drink now and then, or a beer with some kinds of foods, or a glass of wine here and there. I probably have a dozen drinks a year. I do not drink for the purpose of getting drunk. Conversations with the porcelain throne are not my idea of fun. Drinking now and then is fine. It is overdoing it that is a problem; the same as overeating. Everything in moderation, and we're all good to go.

Trying to decide your age status is challenging

Trying to decide your age status is challenging

What Do You Think?

© 2014 Liz Elias


Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on January 16, 2015:

Hello there, tillsontitan!

Thanks very much; I'm glad you liked my take and treatment of the topic.

I also like the new saying I've heard since this article was written: "What do you mean, 'act my age?' I don't know how; I've never been this age before!"

LOL @ your brother. That's funny!

Thanks much for the votes!

Mary Craig from New York on January 16, 2015:

Interesting subject handled nicely. It really is controversial with so many pros and cons on both sides. Who knows when anyone really becomes an adult? I like the way you tackled both ends of the spectrum by including the senior citizen side of it. My brother refused to say he was middle age at 45....I asked him how long did he think he was going to live, 100?

Voted up, useful, and interesting.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on January 15, 2015:

Hi there, Au fait,

You raise a good point; fewer would enlist at older ages. Maybe that would be a good thing. With fewer in the military, maybe TPTB would be less eager to start baseless overseas wars and conflicts!

I think it is pretty much human nature, not just children, to want to explore 'taboo' areas. I simply believe that "official adulthood," according to laws, should be consistent with the age at which you may vote and enter into legally binding contracts; i.e., 18; and then prohibit private venues from charging 'adult' prices for anyone under that age.

Thanks very much for your thoughts and votes!

C E Clark from North Texas on January 15, 2015:

I guess adulthood is strange here in the U.S. If they raised the age when young people could join the military fewer of them would join. More mature people understand the risks better.

It is the nature of most young people and children to want to do that which is forbidden and to explore that which is taboo. Changing the age at which different things are acceptable is unlikely to have much affect until the attitude about these things changes in this country.

Vote up and interesting!

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on September 11, 2014:

Hello, DDE,

Thank you very much. I'm glad you liked this article.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on September 11, 2014:

You have a very interesting mind of thoughts in this hub there is no exception.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on July 02, 2014:

Hello there Torrs13,

Thanks very much for your well-thought-out commentary.

I agree, in addition to the societal confusions, there are also individual variations. I know 50-year-olds who should not be considered adults, and I have also known those who were "12 going on 42," mature well beyond their years.

Since it is impossible and impractical to try and administer an on-the-spot maturity test for each situation, in my opinion, it behooves the lawmakers to mandate consistency.

Tori Canonge from North Carolina on July 01, 2014:

This is definitely one of those topics that requires some thought because most of us don't participate in cultural celebrations that initiate us into adulthood. For me, I felt like I became an official adult when I was 17 because that is when I left home and was completely on my own. At that point, I paid for all my own bills, had to work, went to school, and pretty much had to get everything pulled together by myself. Some of my friends are in their mid 20s and I still don't consider them to be adults because they have yet to manage their finances or live out of their parent's house. A lot of gray area exists!

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on June 06, 2014:

Hello there, Jeannieinabottle--

Oh, you are so right! The age of "adulthood" is such an arbitrary number. There are indeed some "adults" who behave like spoiled children--in fact, there are a number of them in the current congress!! And there are some very mature kids--have you seen the video of the very articulate 12-year-old dressing down the local politicians? Very impressive!

But calling a 1- or 12-year-old an "adult" for the sole purpose of charging a higher admission price, in my opinion, is just wrong, and smacks of nothing but unadulterated greed!

Ditto the kids' menu thing. Some kids have small appetites, so why waste the money on a larger portion of food the child won't be able to finish? This may be nominally acceptable if dining out while at home, because you can take the leftovers home. But on vacation? Most folks don't travel in self-contained RV's, and have nowhere to store leftovers, so that food goes to waste.

There are, indeed, so many variables that in a way, it makes sense to just create a single, standard age at which one transitions to "adulthood," (or to being a senior citizen), and leave all of these confusing differences behind.

Thanks so much for your well-thought-out comment!

Jeannie Marie from Baltimore, MD on June 06, 2014:

The problem with age is it means nothing. Everyone matures at different rates and in different ways. I know 13 year olds that look like they are 18, but they have the mentality of a 10 year old. I know adults that are 30 years old, but act like they are 12. I've said many times before I was ready to vote at age 15 and counted down the days until I could vote. I even researched politicians to a pretty significant degree back then. But could I drive a car? Oh, I am in my late 30s now and STILL horrible at it! You just never know.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on May 27, 2014:

Hello there, epbooks-

I wonder the same thing myself. Who thought up this craziness, and why?

In the case of movie theaters and amusement parks, I'm sure it's nothing more than common greed and increasing their bottom line. They charge more--a lot more--for adults.

Thanks so much for stopping by and adding more food for thought. ;)

Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on May 27, 2014:

Such a strange grid of age requirements. I wonder how they come up with these things!

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on May 23, 2014:

Hi there, FlourishAnyway--

Oh, you're so right--I forgot all about that. I don't have/never have had occasion to rent cars that often, so that one got by me. Also the employment/marriage ages, which vary by state.

Thanks so much for your additions to the topic!

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 23, 2014:

An interesting twist is that you often cannot rent a car until age 25. And minimum age of marriage and minimum employment age would both be interesting adds. I love your artwork.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on May 22, 2014:

Hi, AlicaC,

Thanks so much for stopping by. I don't know who started this mess of age-confusion, but I sure wish it could be stopped! I'm glad you enjoyed my attempt at artwork. LOL ;)

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on May 21, 2014:

The contradictions in age requirements are very strange. They certainly don't make sense, as you've pointed out! I like the your drawing. It's a great way to illustrate the problem.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on May 21, 2014:

@ billybuc--You are so right. There is a word--rather, an acronym-- for the way things are: "FUBAR." Translation, however, would probably alert HP's censor-bots. Thanks much for your input.

@ MsDora--So true--none of this will matter once we're old enough to be dead. ;-) Glad you liked the article.

@ tirelesstraveler--I should hope the amusement park managers don't actually THINK that a 12-year-old is an adult, but at any of them I ever went to with my kids, that is certainly a common price-point marker, often worded something like this: "Adults 12 and over, $xxx, children 6-11 $xx, children 5 and under, free." Whoopee! They let you in free if you're too young to get much enjoyment out of the majority of the park, and charge up the wazoo if you are! Thanks for stopping by and adding your comment.

Judy Specht from California on May 21, 2014:

Amusement parks don't really think a 12 year old is an adult do they?

I think adulthood should be according to levels of responsibility and maturity. There are some people who should never be allowed to drink or drive. Interesting food for thought.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on May 21, 2014:

You're right. The variations in the age qualification my not please any of us all the time, but no need to fuss. If we get old enough, they won't matter. Your insights are interesting. Enjoyed the read.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 21, 2014:

Give the federal government enough time and they will manage to mess up just about anything. This is certainly one of those times.

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