The obligatory “first drink” for a 21st birthday is perfectly indicative of how comical and arbitrary the weight we place on age really is. I absolutely adore celebrating birthdays; I am a firm believer in celebrations, from Hallmark Holidays to anniversaries and beyond — it is delightful to gather with those you love and focus on the positive. Following many of my friends turning 21 and with my birthday on the horizon, I have come to find the great deal of importance we place on age to be something worth examining further.
As a political science student, I tend to look toward legislation or general governmental action to explain the way people act or think. Human behavior is, in many ways, intertwined with the political landscape that surrounds us. Similar to the relationship between art and life and how they imitate each other, society and the political landscape often play off of each other. In the case of age, it is clear that from birth the government hands us a timeline of our lives. Before we can even speak or walk on our own, age is crucial in modulating our development. It’s celebrated on a monthly basis early in life until suddenly it becomes about far more than the expectation to meet medical benchmarks. Age determines when we begin going to school, when we can drive a car and the number of passengers in that car, when we can legally consume alcohol or smoke marijuana where it is legal and so on. These legal parameters in turn influence our interpretation of maturity and preparedness. Over the years, as society changes, the timeline does too, but many rigid dates remain inflexible.
Consider what life would be like if there was no legislative timeline for when, how and by what means maturity occurs. Our entire concept of age would likely feel much different. Since these milestones are merely based on a rough approximation, and from that approximation extrapolated out onto the entire population, the psychological effects of a legally-imposed timeline of life have certainly impacted the cognitive schemas we’ve even unknowingly associated with different ages. The ability to drive a car has inherent ties to an increase in independence and responsibility. The age of 16 or 17 has become a cornerstone of teenage freedom; it is no coincidence that scenes with cars and driving are so commonplace in coming-of-age literature and films like Perks of Being a Wallflower. If, instead, we began driving when we found the incentive to enroll in the course and the ability to acquire a vehicle, the domino effect that would result is unpredictable, yet fascinating to imagine. Not to say that there should be no scaffolding of development based on age, of course. It would be absurd to expect a ten-year-old to drive a car, for example, but theorizing about this alternate reality certainly allows for a deeper intellectual examination of the way our world works.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard my parents, grandparents or even siblings recount a story that seems insane to me because of my perception of what is age-appropriate. These stories always conclude with the same phrase: “Well, things were different.” I try to imagine my five-year-old father walking, as he says he did, home from kindergarten alone. I picture my mom getting engaged to my dad at 19 years old while still in college. These things that seem completely intangible to me now were, as they claim, really nowhere out of the ordinary. It’s the same way that my siblings and I had much stricter (albeit, not strict by today’s standards) rules in terms of where we went alone and when we were able to travel freely. The summertime for my parents in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, New York apparently turned the streets into a playground of sorts; people would walk house to house and knock on their friends’ doors to spontaneously initiate what now prompts a phone call between parents and is even often scheduled as a “playdate.” The ages at which these milestones occur in our lives have so much to do with the society in which we live and the unique ways our families fit within this largely legislatively determined mold.
Along this line of logic, some argue that age has become much less of an indicator of when any sort of “settling down” (like getting married and having kids) should occur. There is, in my eyes, definitely some truth to this. However, I feel it’s also had an adverse effect in the process. Instead of rushing to settle down, many people in their late teens and twenties are overly concerned about not settling down too soon. Like many of my peers at the University of Michigan, I am someone who intends on accomplishing and experiencing many things before I settle down. Growing up, I had always fantasized about living on a timeline similar to my parents: a high school sweetheart or young love, a family and a house and a dog by 30 years old. First and foremost, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this picture. I’ve just realized as I’ve gotten older that it is not the right path for me.
As for right now, I think about the three years of law school, the unknown amount of time I’ll have to put in paying my dues at a firm and the millions of places I need to travel before I reach the point of settling down. I’m excited for the future, but also grateful for the delayed sense of adulthood of the 21st century. This hyper-anxiety and near-claustrophobic sense of a ticking clock are very real for many people; we have been conditioned to feel this way as a result of the context in which we grew up, even having Hamilton’s obsession with time and legacy as the perfect soundtrack to overthink to.
In a general sense, age is definitely important. We, societally, have an appreciation for numbers, especially those that categorize people in some way or another. But like your weight, number of sexual partners or grade point average, there is simply more to life than what numbers you possess. Having said all of this, I still think there is something uniquely special about reaching these milestones. The driver’s license photo at 16 or 17, obligatory lottery ticket at 18 and, of course, the first legal drink at 21 have become symbols of the American consciousness. We should certainly celebrate these traditions, but should also stay more attuned to the undulations of the times and how they may affect their relevance. As the world changes and we define and redefine when childhood ends, adulthood begins and whatever exists in the interim, it’s important to write your own timelines beyond what society decides for you.
Jess D’Agostino is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.