Where society went wrong?

There’s a choice our `western’ society (and others) stumbled into making, and I say `stumbled’ into it because I don’t get the impression that it was a fully thought-out choice. We now take it so much for granted that it may be quite shocking to suggest the alternative.

The choice (if choice it was) was to count everyone who was born more than some certain number of years ago as being an adult. This is typically done in stages — a number of years from birth to being allowed to marry, some number for being allowed to vote, some number to being allowed to buy and drink alcohol, some number before being allowed to drive… hang on, there is actually a test for that one (in most countries), surely that’s discriminating on actual readiness to drive, and thus unfair to those who can’t?

I don’t have records of whatever discussions led to these pieces of legislation in any country, but I assume that the age for each piece of adulthood was chosen as an approximation that wouldn’t be too far off, to avoid having to make decisions about individuals’ readiness. Of course, I might be wrong: the idea might have been very deliberately to give to those less than typically mature for the chronological age, responsbilities for which they were not ready, and to penalize the more mature by holding them back from responsbilities for which they were ready. However, I think it makes more sense that the idea was to choose a cutoff point at which most of the population would be ready. The fact that the ages sometimes get revised suggests that the idea is to find a good approximation.

I think it is an approximation that has failed us badly, especially as society appears to be infantilizing its members as they are formed, telling them about rights and not so much about responsibilities. There’s a wide scatter of when people become mature and responsible enough to make decisions without making a mess that impinges on those around them, and that scatter seems to be drifting upward; I read an article some time ago (unfortunately I can’t find it to cite it) saying that psychologists had found that changes in attitude that were once taken to occur at ages such as 16, 18 or 21, now typically occur at 35.

The alternative, I think, would be to grant legal adulthood once actual adulthood has been observed. We can’t get there from here, however; there is so much obsession about clamouring for `my rights’ as soon as possible, that it would be seen as huge human rights violation.

How could such a system work? This is alternative-universe thinking, perhaps something to write into a novel. My idea is to have a series of stages, each of which governs acceptance into itself (perhaps with some oversight from the next stage on, or from all later stages). The stages would be something like: infant, child, adolescent, young adult, later adult, sage. Many forms of misbehaviour (crimes) could be responded to in such a society by adjusting the offender’s status to the stage at which the behaviour concerned was normal.

Are there any societies that run like this? I don’t know of any that systematic, but I think there are societies in which formal adulthood doesn’t have a fixed starting age. And Belgium has a `statute of extended minority’, by which people without adult-level reasoning can remain in a legal state similar to that of a child.


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