Opinion: The (changing) age of maturity

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Cameron Gorman

When I started college, at age 18, I felt very grown up. I was ready for the world at large — ready to make decisions that would affect me later on in my life. After all, I was legally allowed to make them. Smoking? Sure. Tattoos? Of course. Driving, serving in the military, being tried as an adult, drinking? Yes, yes, yes and … well, no.

But still, I felt as if I’d finally outgrown the fogginess of development and entered the solid, sureness of adulthood.

By the time I was 19 turning 20, I looked back on 18 as a misty memory. Now I was sure that I was a real adult, and I wondered why I couldn’t see that I was so inexperienced back in those far-off, 18-year-old days. Ah, to be young again.

Now I’m 21, and by all laws in the United States, finally a full-fledged grown-up. There’s nothing I can’t do! (Well, maybe I still can’t rent a car without a young driver surcharge or get the National Living Wage in the United Kingdom. But you get the point.) I feel, finally, like the way I think is reflective of a more fully developed sense of self. I’m told I’m finally done growing.

But truthfully, I’m not sure that’s true. Your sense of self, people with more life experience than I have told me, changes throughout your life. There may never be a moment when you crystallize into the final, static form of who you are. Perhaps how you see yourself is constantly in flux, even if just by a little bit. After all, the truth of most things isn’t one thing or another, but a bit of both. Naturally, things aren’t really black and white, but gray. But what does that mean for the newsprint way we see societal problems?

Being able to smoke at 18 and drink at 21 has been part of our cultural memory for quite a long time. It seems like a given for most people. Maybe that’s why there’s been quite a shakeup recently over things like the Tobacco 21 ordinance in Kent. Our city’s following a rather large trend of raising the smoking age to 21 — KentWired reported that Kent is taking a hint from 290 other cities that have already passed it.

We’re protecting people from the known health dangers of smoking, sure. But does that mean that we only care to enforce a smoking ban for three years? Once we hit 21, we can destroy our lungs as much as we want to. Why protect (or, if you prefer, withhold the rights of) some adults, but not others? Why 18? Why 21? What’s so special about these two magic numbers?

Well, a Slate article said it might be pretty “arbitrary” indeed. Adolescence now might reach into one’s early 20s. Fortune Magazine said scientists in the U.K. are calling for “adolescence” to extend from ages 10 to 24. If the magic number was originally 18, then, it seems more and more as if we’re changing our minds until 21. And with lifespans lengthening, marriage and kids put off until later and moving out postponed, who’s to say that won’t eventually change to 24 — or even later?

Good for brain development, maybe, but I wouldn’t want to withhold the vote from college students. Unfortunately, maturity is ultimately person-by-person. One 18-year-old can certainly be more mature than another. So how do you know when you’re really and truly a full-fledged adult? How do you know when you’re to be trusted to smoke?

Reader, I wish I knew. After all, some scientists might say I haven’t figured adulthood out yet myself. But until we have some better method of determining maturity, we’ll have to settle with what we’ve got. And in Kent, that means no more freshman hookah.

Cameron Gorman is a columnist. Contact her at [email protected]