Americans are tasked with a variety of obligations while granted various rights and opportunities depending on their age. According to the Cornell Legal Institute, the age of legal majority is set at eighteen years old and is the point in which a person gains “control over their own actions and affairs and becomes responsible for the decisions they make.” However, the legal age of majority is different from the legal age of license, which is the minimum age set by a state to participate in certain activities. Although the age of legal majority is consistent across the United States, the age for voting, selective service, consumption of alcohol and nicotine products, owning a handgun and other activities vary from the age of majority and vary by state.
The reasons for which these age limits vary are set with an intent to reflect psychological human development, perceived majority and other factors. In Pennsylvania, you can vote, be charged in a court of law as an adult, be conscripted into the U.S military and buy a shotgun or rifle at eighteen. Citizens must be twenty-one to purchase cigarettes, purchase or consume alcohol, rent a car or purchase any firearm other than a shotgun or rifle. However, Pennsylvanians pay federal and state taxes once they are legally able to work at age fourteen (on a worker’s permit). Although Pennsylvanians may pay taxes at fourteen, they cannot vote for those who set tax policy until the age of eighteen. Although Americans can be conscripted (or voluntarily serve) in the military at age eighteen, they generally cannot drink a beer until twenty-one. Similarly, Pennsylvanians can serve and yet not own their own handgun.
These differing age minimums are put into place for varying reasons: the drinking age and smoking age are based off preventing citizens from consuming substances while cognitive development is in its prime. Some argue that differing age limits for gun ownership, substance consumption and vehicle rental are set wisely to protect individual citizens and mitigate the risk of adverse individual harm and overall societal risk. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that raising the drinking age to twenty-one has reduced traffic fatalities of citizens ages eighteen to twenty by 13%.
Others claim that the age of majority should be the standard for all activities at age eighteen, as they are “responsible for their own actions and affairs” in the eyes of the law. This debate is not new and is one that Americans have strong opinions on, yet few state or national legislation has been introduced to standardize age of licenses in the past twenty years. The most recent national change includes the increase of the smoking age to twenty-one.
Overall, these differing ages of license create a conflicting definition of adulthood and majority. Give it a thought: Should these differing age limits be kept in place or should a standardized age of “majority” be adopted?