Of Beer, Bar Mitzvahs, and the Age of Majority

Originally posted by O Ceallaigh on the discontinued blog Felloffatruck Publications, 9 February 2007. Reposted here, with updates, in support of a retrospective currently ongoing at the Dude & Dude site.

I’m driving in my car this afternoon, returning to work from the house in Damariscotta Mills. I had to drive up there to stoke the wood stove (the place doesn’t have any other major source of heat yet, and my housemate was called to a family funeral halfway across the country) and retrieve the bag of stuff I left there this morning. Including my glasses. So much for my plans to get work done in the morning.

The radio is on, and tuned to MPBN, which is running public affairs programming. Everything else on the radio at this hour is either boring or disgusting, so I hang with the public affairs. Including a show from the BBC World Service, on what they’re calling Generation Next – persons coming of age in this first decade of the 21st century. Naturally, the program first aired on the World Service during the first week of December last year. We’re getting it late. Whatever. This is Maine. We should probably be grateful we’re getting it at all.

Screen Shot 2022-02-06 at 2.48.39 PMBut the program’s premise got my attention. “Like, the age of majority is too old, man. Don’t tell me I have to wait until I’m 18 to vote when I can go to jail as an adult at 13. And waiting until I’m 21 to drink alcohol legally just sucks. Stop the hypocrisy already!”

Did that ever bring back memories.

“We can get drafted at 18. We can go to Vietnam at 18. We can die in a jungle for The Man at 18. Dammit, we’ll burn your town down until we get the right to vote at 18!!”

We got it.

We also got the right to drink at 18. In Maine, it lasted, I think, maybe four or five years, from about 1970 to 1975. Just long enough for the authorities to figure out that the main result of the change was to dredge a river of beer from the 18-year-olds to the 14-year-olds. Hell, the carnies from town all clustered around the convenience store next to my college campus, waiting for the boys from my dorm to buy for them. So much for the “maturity” of the new voters of 1972. The drinking age was rolled back to 21 faster than you can say “Card that kid!” And there were plenty of people arguing for the age to be rolled up to, like, 25.

(Incidentally, they still had “mens” and “womens” dorms at my school back then – though the designations were mostly honored in the breach.)

So why are we doing this all over again? Why all this talk about pushing the age of majority down? I mean, Nelson Mandela wanted the age of majority in South Africa to be fifteen!

Of course, one could also ask, “How come the age of majority got pushed up so high in the first place?” After all, once upon a time, “majority” was all about biology. Puberty meant adulthood, and adulthood meant puberty. Clean, neat, simple. That’s why the Jewish Bar Mitzvah is celebrated at age 13. The Christian rite of Confirmation used to be celebrated at about the same age.

[It also meant that you survived childhood, which half of those with the same birth year as you did not. And, since the risk of death by combat, or childbirth, while still high, was orders of magnitude lower than that of death by childhood disease, it meant that it made economic sense to educate you. Just in time to enlist you in the war machine, or the brood stock.]

I still get insanely jealous when I read of 19th century American historical figures like William Walker and George McClellan graduating from college before they were 20 (in Walker’s case, when he was flippin’ fourteen, for God’s sake). I would have killed for the right to skip grades and get school over early! It was never allowed. What happened?

Well, I have some thoughts. To research the thoughts would stretch this post into next week. I don’t have the time, you don’t likely have the patience. So you get the bulleted version, and you can shoot me for it if you like.

1. Technology. The theory goes that, as machines have multiplied since the Industrial Revolution, both they and the society that has evolved around them have become more complex, and the complexities take more time to learn. Couple this with the wealth generated by the Industrial Revolution, which gives families the resources to nurture children rather than throw them into the economic breach, and you get “the emergence of childhood as a stage of life”. Not to mention its prolongation.

2. Longevity. As humans have become more long-lived, and healthier longer into their lives, they remain productive longer. Have incentive to retain positions of power and influence longer. And all those ratty kids are threats to the stations of the elders. The longer they stay kids …

I vividly remember meeting a Japanese colleague at a meeting back in 1987 (I think it was). He greeted me with effusive congratulations on my exalted station in life. I was 34 and had been a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in a New Zealand university for the preceding two years – and I thought this was a terribly slow progression, reflecting badly on my person and skills. I responded that he surely was younger (not to mention smarter and more industrious) than I, and would soon come into his own position.

His reply knocked me down. Because of the hierarchical nature of Japanese academic positions, he had to wait for someone to die before he could attain a position equivalent to mine. Since Japanese academics tended to live until they were like 90, this could be a long wait. And my colleague was already 44. (He is now a famous university professor in Japan.)

3. Demographics. We can’t forget that today’s world, at least in the industrialized nations, is dominated by those dreaded Baby Boomers. Who have had every incentive to keep kids kids, lest they actually compete for the positions that the Boomers sacked campuses and burned draft cards to secure for themselves.

Except that now those Boomers are starting to retire. And are going to need somebody to keep working to pay all those juicy benefits that they have secured for themselves.

So now it’s OK to let the young people talk about reaching the age of majority sooner. The Boomers are going to need all those bodies making money for them. The earlier they get to work the better …

At the very end of the BBC program, host Robin Lustig asked members of Generation Next how they thought they would govern when it came to be their turn to be in power. “Oh, more environmentally friendly”, came the response.

Really? And this is different from the 1970s how? Didn’t the Boomers promise peace, love, and the Whole Earth Catalog? That there would never again be an Iraq a Vietnam?

Robin Lustig, BBC, allow me to introduce you to Pete Townsend, of the rock band The Who. You may recall the last line of one of his most famous songs:

Meet the new boss! Same as the old boss!

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