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When Are You Really an Adult?

Peace, harmony, and lifelong learning are Liz's passions. She's outspoken on education and childhood and is an activist in local politics.

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
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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.

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?

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2014 Liz Elias

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