Coming of age
You'll be a man, my son
Mar 6th 2008
From The Economist print edition
But it's not clear precisely when
AT WHAT age does adulthood begin? In Britain, as in most countries, it comes in dribs and drabs: school becomes optional at the age of 16; driving lessons can begin at 17, and at 18 people are freed to drink, gamble and vote (in roughly that order of priority).
The long march to maturity is being pushed back. In October cigarettes were plucked from the hands of 16-year-olds, who must now wait another two years for their first legal puff. The following month ministers unveiled plans to keep teenagers in school or part-time training until they are 18. And on March 4th, as part of a package of curbs on binge-drinking, the government launched a crusade against under-age drunkenness. Shops and bars caught serving under-18s will get one warning before losing their licence, rather than two, and minors caught furtively boozing will be sent with their parents to meet a social worker. Some suspect that next week's budget will ramp up tax on child-friendly tipples such as cider.
It is not surprising that the current government, which has made child poverty a focus for many years, should be keen to protect youngsters from the evils of tobacco, alcohol and employment. There is also widespread worry among voters about the national loss of (possibly mythical) childhood innocence. Serious violence committed by, and against, teenagers appears to be rising; last year a UN report labelled Britain the worst place in the rich world to be a child, based on exposure to drugs, violence and other nastiness. Growing up more slowly might be the answer.
But there are other areas where Britain is determined that its children grow up quickly. The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is ten, trailing most of Europe, where usually only those aged 14 or 16 can be prosecuted. Britain's jails have a higher proportion of prisoners under 21 than any in Europe apart from Ireland's. And their numbers are rising, thanks to harsher treatment of petty anti-social behaviour and teenage enterprises such as phone theft.
That is depressing. But there is a more optimistic approach to treating children like adults: giving them the vote. Julie Morgan, a Labour MP who has put forward a private bill enfranchising 16-year-olds, argues that it is a good way to engage disenchanted teenagers who, in any case, pay reasonable sums of tax to the exchequer. The low turnout among 18-year-olds is actually an argument in favour of extending the franchise, she says: children will pick up the voting habit while they are still at school, having their compulsory citizenship lessons. The government has begun a review of the subject, which insiders say will go nowhere. But the enthusiasm of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments (who are in favour, but unable to act without London's consent) will add some pressure.
With children being pulled towards both early adulthood and prolonged childhood, there might be room for more variation. On drinking, for example, some European countries allow younger teenagers beer and wine, keeping them off the strong stuff until they are older. The Tories recently floated the idea of postponing the right to drive for teenagers who misbehave. Or perhaps the opposite is true: teenagers might better understand the rights and responsibilities of adulthood if they were granted them all on one solemn date. A secular bar mitzvah such as this would at least clear up some inconsistencies in the current system. What sort of country allows you to have a child before you can have a tattoo?