Two young women enjoy a seaside break
The law doesn’t factor in feelings when it comes to adulthood © Roo Lewis/Getty Images

What is an adult? Aged 18, I rolled my eyes when my father confessed to occasionally feeling too immature to have a grown-up child. What was he talking about? He was ancient (over 50), with two kids, a career, in possession of a flat and a car. What greater proof of adulthood did he need?

I did not know then that I would feel similarly one day, or indeed, on many days. Like the time a friend bounced my son, then a baby, on her knee until his gummy smiles evaporated and he began to cry. “He wants his mum,” my friend said. For a brief moment I scanned the room for his mother, until I remembered it was me.

The law doesn’t factor in feelings when it comes to adulthood. In most of the world, maturity arrives on your 18th birthday, when a minor attains the age of majority, becoming responsible for their actions and contracts. But different countries take different views on certain risks. In Togo, there’s no legal drinking age, while most US states only let you drink once you are 21. Sixteen-year-olds can enlist in the British army with their parents’ consent, but they can’t fight on the front lines. They also supposedly can’t watch Ricky Gervais’s latest Netflix comedy stand-up SuperNature because the age rating is 18.

This week, a government-commissioned report raised the bar for adulthood by recommending the age at which cigarettes can be bought in England, currently set at 18, should rise by a year annually. The paper forms part of a proposal to phase out smoking, mirroring a similar plan in New Zealand.

Such a move would be an outlier in the UK. One government spokesperson was reported as saying that as a “general point of principle, the view has always been that 18 is widely recognised as the age of adulthood”. Broadly, age-related changes in the past 15-20 years have shifted upwards, says Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. However, they tend to stop at 18, including the minimum age policy brought in to restrict lottery ticket purchases last year, and the ruling in 2010 to stop young people entering tanning salons.

The transition to adulthood is vexatious. This week, viewers of Love Island, the hit reality TV show, expressed on Twitter that they were aghast at a potential romance between a 19-year-old and a 27-year-old. “Please please please have a minimum age requirement of 21,” wrote one. “I don’t want to see a 19-year-old kissing someone who’s pushing 30.”

According to Steven Mintz, author of The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood, “contemporary western societies have created a contradictory life stage”. On the one hand, he says, young adults have greater freedom than in the past. “They can have more casual intimate relations . . . travel or explore various life options, environments and career paths.” Yet they are seen as “immature”.

Evidence of delay in acquiring the hallmarks of adulthood is easy to find. In the US, Pew Research said that the number of people in multigenerational households quadrupled between 1971 and 2021 to 18 per cent of the population. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the proportion of 19-to 29-year-olds living in their parents’ homes rose 34 to 43 per cent between 1996-97 and 2018-19. This is partially explained by the rising age of marriage and parenthood. The number of women who gave birth at 18 fell by 58 per cent between 2000 and 2016, while the number of 18-year-olds who became fathers fell by 41 per cent.

There is an opposing view of young adults, however, crystallised in arguments to lower the voting age to 16. This somewhat relies on the belief, Cowley says, “that people are growing up earlier, that [they] are more sophisticated than they used to be”.

The idea that young people are growing up faster springs partly from shifts in technology. Today’s kids have access to free pornography and brutal images on the internet. One social worker told me about a class of 12-year-olds who received a video of a beheading via their group WhatsApp. Horrors have always been accessible in some form but never as easily as now.

One study in the US concluded that teens were “growing up more slowly than they once did” and “pursuing a slower life strategy”. The current generation’s delay in achieving the benchmarks of adulthood that I once saw in my father is explained by economic factors, rather than an innate shift in levels of maturity. It is rational to live with your parents if you are insecurely employed, unable to afford a flat or staying longer in education. Both my father and I could buy our first homes relatively early, not due to our sophistication, but because of lower property prices.

A slower progress to adulthood also makes sense at a time of increased life expectancy — something that raising the age of buying cigarettes can only help.

emma.jacobs@ft.com

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