Why setting a “minimum age” for everything is a bad idea

A “minimum age” solves everything!

Setting minimum ages to legally engage in more dangerous activities seems like a good idea at first glance. They purport to “protect youth” from hazards until they’re mature enough to handle them, and to “save lives.” They prevent supposedly reckless experimentation during teen years that can solidify as problems in older ages. They establish a clear delineation between childhood and adult rights. And they’re very easy to pass here; those restricted are not thought to have rights worth respecting.

The United States has by far the most stringent, widespread, enforced age limits of any country for dozens of behaviors –access to alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, medicine, spray paint, guns, health care, abortions, driving, sex, R-rates movies, just about anything you can think of, and even being in public during certain hours. New and raised age limits and punishments are proposed all the time, recently including for tobacco. Interestingly, the age limits that remain low are those that serve grownup interests, such as the age at which an adult can legally have sex with a youth (16 in most states, and no higher than 18); the age at which one can join (or be compelled to join) the armed forces; and the age at which parents and the state are no longer required to financially support a youth (both 18). Youth rights are expendable; youth obligations are not.

But if minimum ages set at high levels make young people and society safer, then why does the United States also suffer by far the worst social and health crises of any Western (and most non-Western) countries? The U.S. has uniquely high and strict minimum-age laws for drinking alcohol (and has the Western world’s second-highest alcohol-abuse death rate; only Finland is worse). Also for prescription drug purchase (and the worst rate of drug abuse mortality, many times higher than in other affluent countries). And among the most restrictive for teen driving (and ranks near the bottom in traffic safety). And for guns and curfews (and the worst violent crime and gun violence levels). The same U.S.-is-the-worst pattern is evident for all ages and a host of other social problems, from homelessness to imprisonment.

This is not the pattern one would expect if America’s youth-restricting minimum-age laws promoted healthier, safer behaviors. So, first consider their downsides. Minimum-age laws create a mass-arrest regime (half a million annual arrests of Americans under age 21 every year for alcohol, for example). They cut young people off from millions of entry-level jobs and cultural opportunities related to alcohol dispensing, tobacco sales, sexually explicit expressions, and late-night venues. They create generation-segregated, non-family settings that are more perilous for both youths and adults. They promote easy scapegoating and cracking down on young people instead of tough, comprehensive analyses of social problems. And, they contribute to a lack of coping experience for young adults thrust into the often irresponsible American adult world.

For one example of many, drunken driving arrests leap by 60% and alcohol-related traffic deaths by nearly 50% from age 20 to 21 in the United States and persist at high levels through the early 30s, as well as persistently high binge-drinking rates continuing into late middle age. Similar shifts in risks to more difficult adult years are found for other behaviors. In California alone, more than 220,000 adults ages 21 and older are arrested for drunken driving and drunkenness every year; two thirds are 30 and older. Drinking and smoking by adults age 21 and older kill more than 1,000 children and teenagers, and injures hundreds of thousands more, in traffic accidents, fires, violence, and health damage every year.

None of these should be happening if severely restricting teens, the centerpiece of our safety and health policy, worked to reduce risks. The presumption (a self-serving one for adults) is that merely maturing beyond teen years automatically confers the wisdom to handle risks, so that attaining a certain age becomes the only qualification for indulging in pleasurable freedoms.

Is there a connection between America’s plethora of minimum-age limits and its dangerousness? This blog briefly examines three examples to argue that yes, the zeal for setting minimum ages prevents teenagers from obtaining experience necessary to handling adult risks, ensures that both teenage and adult behaviors will take place under the most hazardous circumstances, and prevents reasoned analysis of what works to cause declines in social and health problems such as traffic safety and violence.

The 21 drinking age. In the late 1970s and 1980s, states with low (age 18 and 19) minimum ages for alcohol use had seen greater declines in teenagers’ than adults’ alcohol-related traffic crashes as more stringent drunken-driving laws aimed at all ages took effect. Then, states began raising their legal ages for alcohol use to 21, which was formally required by Congress in 1987. Alcohol-related deaths among teens continued to decline more slowly, but began rising among 21-24 year-olds who had been affected by the raised drinking age. The net level of fatalities among young people, particularly in states that formerly had “graduated drinking ages,” rose in the late 1980s and 1990s after Congress mandated a national drinking age of 21.

“Teen driving” laws. This may be the funniest unfunny story of all. California is a typical example. In 1996, the state had enjoyed a decade of record declines in traffic crashes and fatalities among teenaged drivers to all-time lows. Then, the legislature, after terrifying lobbying by safety groups, implemented a new, severely restrictive law subjecting drivers age 16-17 to multiple, highly supervised stages before licensing. What happened? In the 1996-2005 period, fatality rate declines among 16 year-olds slowed, 17 year-olds’ leveled off, and drivers age 18 and older previously subjected to the new law as teens showed significant increases in traffic deaths. A major study showed similar post-law trends toward higher death rates among young drivers nationwide. When YouthFacts presented these findings to the California legislature in 2008, safety and law enforcement lobbies that had lobbied for the law sat silently and later admitted they were aware of the dismal trends – but hadn’t spoken up. What did the legislature do? Attempted to extend the law to 18 and 19 year-olds! (Fortunately, the California Department of Transportation, which had also found bad effects from the teen driving law, prevented extending its failings to still higher ages by pointing out obvious logistical problems.)

Youth curfews. Here the findings are unambiguous: schoolday and nighttime curfews don’t protect youths or enhance public safety; they are generally associated with bad results. And just as consistently, officials keep trying to impose them with flowery promises of great benefits, even while admitting complete lack of interest in their negative realities.

Efforts, led by New York City, are underway to raise the cigarette age to 21, and marijuana legalization initiatives set a similar age for marijuana use. The results would be comical if they weren’t so bizarrely mean-spirited. A 20 year-old war veteran coming home from combat duty can be denied a cigarette, a joint, or a lite beer and can’t rent a car for five more years. A 40 year-old man can legally have sex with a high school junior, who would be arrested if she had a smoke afterward or watched a video of their encounter. Adults can legally force children and teens to consume cigarette and marijuana smoke passively in their own homes and vehicles (despite severe health effects) while demanding the arrest and punishment of the same youths smoking actively.

These sound like jokes, but they’re not. It’s time for the United States to stop punishing youths and young adults for acting like their grownup models and address real risks: youth poverty, abuse, bad adult behaviors, and the complete lack of coherent health and social policy. A country that demands minimum ages is admitting its adults are poor models for young people, and if that is the case, real grownups address unhealthy adult behaviors first. (Mike Males)