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Defining someone as an ‘adult’ sounds straightforward enough, after all it is the stage after teenage when life becomes a bit more serious. Adults get jobs, leave home, have relationships, vote, pay tax and are expected to behave…like an adult. In law and society it is not as clear cut as you might think. The examples below mostly relate to British law and culture, so cannot be taken as the case everywhere, although some comparisons have been given.

Legally a person is deemed ‘adult’ in England and Wales at eighteen and this is the case regardless of gender or race. In Scotland the age of ‘legal capacity’ is sixteen; this was changed from 18 in 1991. Eighteen is the age at which a person can vote; exceptions to this are nobility, criminals and those of unsound mind. There have been changes to this law – until 1970s the ability to vote was limited to those over the age of 21. In some areas of Germany (Lower Saxony for example) there is a voting age of 16. Austria lowered the voting age from 19 to 18 in the 1990s and to sixteen in some cases. Brazil also has a voting age of 16. Within the UK there have been calls to reduce the age to 16, and this is the case in the Isle of Man, Jersey and some parts of Guernsey; this is a recent change in the law. At present as the Conservative Party do not support the change the age remains at 18. In the US suffrage ranges from 16 in Maryland for referendums and municipal elections to 18, although until the 1970s it was age 21. There were calls during the Vietnam war to reduce the age of suffrage as many of those called to fight where legally below the age of suffrage, to buy alcohol but old enough to die in war.  This is another issue – surely one would claim that someone old enough to join the army deserves to be called ‘adult’? In the UK age 16 is the lowest official age of military service, although there are cadet ranks before.  So as with the US one can die in war but not vote for the government who declared that war…

In some areas of the UK some actions which appears ‘adult’ may not, in fact, be limited to those who have achieved majority; those of age twelve and upwards may make a Will, and instruct a lawyer to act on their behalf. Persons of seventeen can learn to drive (sixteen for motorcycles); many would deem this as an adult skill needing a high level of maturity and responsibility. Although having seen the behaviour of some car drivers this is open to debate!  At sixteen a young person can legally engage in sexual intercourse, buy contraception and in some areas get married. Sixteen is often seen as the border to adulthood, young people of this age can also get a job, leave school, and open a bank account. The ‘age of the majority’ is the LEGAL age, usually 18, when a person is deemed adult, but the ‘age of license’ which is broader in scope means the age at which a person has permission from the government to do something (such as marry, or give consent for sex). There is still a celebration at age 21, when someone gets ‘the key to the door’, this is a throwback to older traditions but is still deemed important in the UK. Personally I left home at 18, as many young people do to study at university so, honestly, I think this is now rather redundant. So it would seem law and culture are not, necessarily in unison.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voting_age http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-21178379

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