Anik Joshi: Towards a unified theory of adulthood

Wednesday, May 22, 2019 - 6:05pm

When are we adults? It’s something a lot of people disagree about, and there really isn’t one set answer as different freedoms are enabled at different ages. 

Let’s look at the ages for distinct privileges in Michigan. You can get an unrestricted license once you turn 17. However, would that really count as adulthood? You still can’t vote — that comes at 18 (please register at vote.gov), like the ability to be sent off to war and pay taxes. Most people would probably say adulthood starts here, but the problem with that is two-fold. First, we have all taken introductory classes with 18-year-olds, and it’s not very controversial to claim that they don’t, for the most part, carry themselves like adults. The second problem with adulthood at 18 is that you still can’t legally drink in the U.S., and the nationwide tobacco age is headed here as well. Would 21 then be a fair adulthood age? I don’t think so, and it’s because there are two more ages worth examining: 11 and 14. 

In 1997, Nathaniel Abraham shot and killed Ronnie Greene outside a party in Pontiac, Michigan. He was convicted as an adult but sentenced as a juvenile and was released upon turning 21. He was 11 years old when he shot Greene. This is not a unique case — Michigan’s laws have favored sentencing those 14 and above to lifetime sentences in the case of murder as well as similar crimes. This might be too common in Michigan. According to MLive, one in 10 prisoners serving mandatory life sentences were 14 to 17 at the time of their crime, and 31 percent of juvenile lifers did not commit the actual homicide. In addition, 69 percent of the juvenile lifers are Black.

Obviously, there are racial issues that must be addressed in a conscious manner, but this gets at something much deeper. Different castes of people are infantilized or over-matured depending on who they are and oftentimes where in society they come from. There are two examples — one more age-based and one more racially-based. 

From the standpoint of age, it is somewhat absurd that there is a general societal expectation that people become adults at 18 given how many freedoms you still lack. One clear manifestation of this is how much more structured high school is (both academically and otherwise) than a typical university. The change is pretty drastic, and I do find it somewhat amusing that students who weren’t allowed to use their phone in class seven months prior are expected to manage much of their life on their own. 

From a racial standpoint, it seems that oftentimes Black people are unfairly made to appear older, and that comes across in a number of ways. There’s the choice of media to use mugshots of Black kids and senior portraits of white kids that make one group appear older and more deserving of punishment. Famously, there was a very different response to the crack crises of the ’80s and ’90s (culturally, politically and otherwise) than the opioid crisis of today which is seemingly racially motivated. 

There should be one age for adulthood that is applied in a more equitable manner, and applied to everything and everyone. If you allow 18-year-olds who serve in the armed forces certain privileges not granted to others, it becomes clear that this is more virtue signaling than it is a serious attempt at legislating. Similarly, there is no reason to have such tough laws regarding minors — there is no reason the age where it is legal to try someone as an adult in Michigan could not be raised to a more reasonable one. This could address racial imbalances, like lifetime sentences given to minors. If the age that we want to assign adulthood to is 18, then on your 18th birthday, you should be allowed to drink, light one up, fire a gun, mail your ballot in and then, when you inevitably get arrested for the racket you cause by disturbing the peace, you should be tried as an adult, but not a moment before you’re 18. Although this might not completely address the racial issue, holding all minors to the same standard might start to change societal perceptions of people. 

Anik Joshi can be reached at anikj@umich.edu.