At What Age Should Adulthood Commence?

Every culture on Earth takes a stab at what age someone is an “adult.” Many do it in graduations: in the US, most states permit kids to start driving unaccompanied at age 16, often with a “learning permit” being issued somewhere up to a year prior. 16 is the minimum working age for most jobs, while 18 is the age where you get to vote or enlist in the military. You wait until 21 to drink alcohol. But do any of those numbers make sense?

I often argued that it would make more sense to let kids get drunk – with a parent or guardian present – prior to driving, so you’d really understand what a bad idea drinking and driving is before you get behind the wheel. Germans start easing their kids into alcoholism at 14, but make them wait until 17 to drive. Often times, that might mean postponing a first job until 17, unless you live someplace with sufficient mass transit or have a parent or friends to take you to work.

Biologically, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive function in humans.

Executive function relates to abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social “control” (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes).

So maybe we wait until the prefrontal is fully online? Be prepared to wait a minute:

The rational part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed and won’t be until age 25 or so.

Yeah, your prefrontal cortex doesn’t come fully online until age 25. We’ve been letting people with underdeveloped executive function vote! In the US, you could participate in as many as two Presidential elections before your brain is even finished! We give military weapons to people who are around 7 years from being able to fully plan the consequences of their actions! Yikes, right?

So we probably won’t ever wait for “biological adulthood” before letting people work, drink, drive, vote, or launch missiles. But what is the right age? Y’all from all around the world, chime in with what your country does, and whether or not you think it works! Folks from the US, chip in with anything unique or unusual about age requirements where you live (looking at you, Wisconsin parents).