A lot of things floating around the interweb right now has me thinking about adulthood, particularly the way our society transitions from teenager to adult. The current situation with Kesha (I LOVE YOU!), student loan debt, and the elevated divorce rate for young marriages have makes me think we might actually want to postpone when we see humans as full-fledged responsible adults, and I think postponing adulthood is a sign of progress and a good thing.
I’m sure some people see Millennials living at home and uncommitted to careers or family as a bad thing, but I think this is a positive cultural shift. As a society grows wealthier and a species starts to live longer, healthier lives, it is only natural that the periods of childhood lengthen as well. We certainly don’t want to reverse course and go back to the days when 14-year olds were expected to work in factories or fields, and marriages/births were common in the early teens. Hell, if you look at our sci-fi and fantasy books they are often filled with long-living species that consider 100 years old to still be youthful. That is the direction we are heading, and we need the legal system to start catching up to this shift. (Side note: having children is something I don’t think the legal system should get involved with prohibiting, but we do need to increase comprehensive sex education and access to birth control so that humans of all ages can have children when they want. This would involve parental involvement and a shift in our education system, and might be the toughest sell for many people, particularly those in more conservative areas of the country.)
Normally, I wouldn’t advocate legal changes (I am an anarchist, after all), but enforcing contracts is one of the things that our legal system is in charge of. If the legal system starts recognizing that a contract signed at the age of 18 is kind of signed by someone who cannot understand the full ramifications of the contract, then much of the world would be better off. After all, most institutions who sign contracts (banks, the military, etc.) are going to try and maximize profit, and in a system where the government enforces contracts they will pursue contracts with people as young as possible. If a bank knew that the courts would allow high interest rates and garnish the wages of a 14-year who defaulted on their loan then I am sure they would issue loans to 14-year olds.
Now, maximizing profit isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but if that profit comes from contracts issued to people who are incapable of understanding or comprehending what they are signing then that is a problem. After all, the “18 is an adult” line that we draw is a social construct, and as a social construct it is malleable. As we continue to understand more about human growth, particularly brain growth, it is becoming clear that our decision making capabilities and cognitive functions are still in high development until years after 18.
I’m not proposing that we just push off all adult responsibilities until 24 or something. That will still be problematic because it will prevent people from moving towards adulthood and getting their lives started. Instead, I think we should treat late teens and early 20s as a period of training for adulthood. Our legal system should put some reasonable limitations on contracts. Maybe those limitations for 18-24 year olds could be something like this:
- The maximum amount of debt a person can have is $10,000.
- Business and marriage contracts automatically expire at the age of 24 years old or 4 years after signing, whichever is later.
- Military enlistment limited to 2 year contracts for the regular military or 4 year contracts for the National Guard/Reserves
- Unlimited alcohol and weed consumption allowed on private property or with parents. Limited allowed in public places. (Age 18-21)
One of the benefits of a society with advancing technology is our opportunities for more leisure and personal fulfillment at all ages. There is no reason that we must continue education and work patterns that were created during an industrial age, we are now an information age. The economy is increasingly based on information, service, and gigs. We shouldn’t be encouraging people under 24 to spend 12-16 years in school when they may not know what they want to do or what the world needs, then take out loans for homes and an education up to $500,000, then committing to a job for 30ish years that you may hate simply because you are trapped in debt, and hoping that someday your body and mind will still hold up so that you can spend the last decade or so retired and doing what you want. Instead, the time before 24 should be spent exploring places and interests, getting to know yourself and your relationship desires, and finding a lifestyle that you love (or going into a career/education with a better idea of the outcomes).
Our society is shifting, and adulthood is shifting with it. It would be nice if we started to appreciate this progress instead of mumbling about “kids back in my day *grumble* *grumble* *grumble*”
PS: All the numbers I suggest for age, length of contract, maximum dollar amount, etc. are kind of arbitrary and are not meant to be some sort of strict policy suggestion. I am also no legal expert and I have no idea if this type of shift would require legislation or if judges/juries could just start taking into account our social shift and knowledge about human development and start voiding contracts.