Edge Of Seventeen

Chad Aldeman, Lynne Graziano, Andy Jacob, and I have a new analysis out today looking at differences in age policy across the states. Yes, in The Edge of Seventeen, we look at how old you have to be to do different things in different places. It’s a mess! And more interesting than you might think.

Here’s Reason on our analysis and the larger questions around coherence and confusion.

For millennia and across different societies there have been formal and informal rites of passage for young people based on different and shifting conceptions about when and how the transition from child to adult happens. 

This image has relatively little to do with the Edge of Seventeen analysis, but it’s a good opportunity to highlight a Fast Times picture.

Today, in the United States, we have formal laws and regulations and informal secular and religious rituals. For some, a quinceañera, bar mitzvah, hunting trip, or debutante ball mark the entry into adulthood or young adulthood. The age at which one is allowed to formally work, drive a car, or make certain health decisions on their own is also important, and is based upon government sanctioned markers. 

In the past, young people often rushed toward these markers of adulthood, often out of necessity (e.g., needing to work and provide for their family, get married, or engage in community defense). Today some evidence suggests a leeriness toward “adulting” and a growing resistance to taking on some responsibilities of adulthood, for instance financial independence or even driving.

Rites of passage were often a matter of necessity, and in some cases still are today. I once visited what’s left of a ranch in the Utah desert that even in the 21st Century is a long day trip by jeep track or only accessible by river, as we came. Someone I was with had notes on the family that once lived there in the early-20th Century: a boy, his sister, and their father. When the father went to “town” he would leave the boy to care for his sister and run the ranch. The boy was about six, his sister three or four. He was, necessarily given ranch life, armed with a rifle. 

Many of these issues, gender, firearms, social media, or health care occasion intense debate. Less debated are broader questions surrounding them, where are the lines between childhood and adulthood and how should a liberal society recognize and codify them in law?

Today, that would earn you a visit from child protective services. But what would fly, and why? It depends on who you ask because we don’t agree. For example, the age of sexual consent in Montana is 16, in Virginia it’s 18. Are young people in Virginia really two years less mature in their decision-making than young people in Montana? Maybe. Or maybe Montana’s law is irresponsible? Or is the gap simply an artifact of different lawmaking processes and norms? Whatever you think, it’s hard to make a case that the distinction makes any logical sense or is grounded in a body of evidence. These inconsistencies are global, too. Montana and other U.S. states with an age of 16 are not outliers. In England, for example, the age of consent is 16 as well. Yet plenty of reasonable adults think 18 is far more appropriate. 

Despite being a more connected and communicative society than ever before, Edge of Seventeen shows we lack a clear or consistent conception of what it means to be a young person in the United States and consequently what law and policy should be. Where and how are we denying kids agency they should have prior to age 18? Where and how are we letting them make consequential decision too soon? When do laws fail to protect young people and where do we overprotect?

Of course, beyond the formal laws there are also informal distinctions as well. For instance, although the drinking age is 21 across the country, many parents allow their children at least some access to alcohol at younger ages. In other cases, young people find ways to drink alcohol on their own. We can ban minors from accessing porn, it doesn’t mean they’re not.

The current debate about transgender youth, perhaps our highest profile age debate right now, turns in part on age and at what age young people can make certain health care decisions. On the political right there is strong pushback on the idea of medical treatment for people under 18 who identify as transgender. On the political left there is an emphasis on ensuring unfettered access to medical treatment for minors. Yet in red states other kinds of consequential health care access such as mental health, abortion, or STI treatment can be available to minors even without parental consent. And in blue states one finds many restrictions when it comes to other body issues as trivial as piercings or tattoos. 

When Mississippi banned medical procedures for transgender youth part of the reasoning was to protect children from irreversible decisions. Mississippi still allows people under 16 to get married with parental consent and a judge signing off. Hard to argue there is a consistent standard at work. 

Some states are restricting a young person’s ability to control how they are addressed – the name or pronouns they are called in school for example – even as those same young people can make consequential health care and mental health decisions on their own. These examples also illustrate a lack of any sort of logical through line. It’s worth asking questions like why a young person can drive a car at 16 and handle a firearm to hunt or target shoot, but not decide how adults, who in the case of schools are agents of the government, address them in public settings?

Other than the title this, too, has little to do with the analysis. But I needed art for the post and she’s fantastic.

In Alabama you can have a gun at any age, but you can’t smoke until you’re 21. Wyoming, too, lets you have guns at all ages but restricts access to mental health care without parental consent until you’re 18. Rhode Island restricts mental health to 18 as well but the age of sexual consent is 16. Delaware lets you work at 12 but no gambling until you’re 21. You get the idea. There are inconsistencies across states, and within states.

In our analysis we look at coherence and incoherence as a way to frame the issue and illustrate the status quo. But it’s not self-evident that coherence is better. Perhaps these issues are so varied that incoherence is unavoidable, necessary, or even desirable.

Many of these issues, gender, firearms, social media, or health care occasion intense debate. Less debated are broader questions surrounding them, where are the lines between childhood and adulthood and how should a liberal society recognize and codify them in law? If you, left, right, or center, are really spun up about any particular issue have you considered the question more generally?

Schools, especially public schools, are squarely in the crosshairs of many these debates and policy questions because they are where young people spend a lot of time, and represent a place where activists on the right and left have staked out positions on contested political issues. School leaders and teachers have at times injected themselves into these debates as well. Schools also enforce some state laws and policies and school employees are generally mandated reporters on laws involving minors. In different ways, laws affecting everything from driving and employment, access to controlled substances, medical decision-making, social media, and gender and sexuality land at the schoolhouse door.

Our project is designed to call attention to the inconsistencies of our current age-related laws. Though I and the other authors certainly have our own views, and disagree with one another on some things, our goal is not to suggest how you should think about any particular question. We want to spur discussion not police wrong think or suggest a correct answer to specific questions – because on many reasonable people can and will disagree.

That’s because these issues are complicated and individuals will arrive at a position based on a blend of what they know about young people from a scientific standpoint, what they believe from a values or community standards point of view, their own experience, and increasingly, if we’re being honest, from negative polarization on the hot button issues.

That’s hard to falsify. So perhaps instead to have a better conversation about these issues – especially the contentious ones – we should broaden the aperture and think more broadly about what does it mean to be an adolescent in America in 2024? To be, with apologies to Stevie Nicks, on the edge of seventeen?

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