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Most countries define the age of adulthood at 18 years.

Why is this? Was there some historical precedent set in ancient Rome/Greece or something like that? Why 18 years and not some "nicer" number like 20 or 15?

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    I doubt that different countries set age of majority due to some historic precedence because there is no agreement on age and age of majority in ancient time was much lower than it is today. Age of majority ranges from 15 to 21 in different countries which is determined due to cultural/religious norms of the country in question.
    – NSNoob
    May 16, 2016 at 8:30
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    Age of majority can vary within one country as well. For example in US, Age of majority varies from 16 to 21. In UK, Scotland has age of majority set to 16 while England has it set to 18.
    – NSNoob
    May 16, 2016 at 8:33
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    Check the complicated table of age of majority at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_majority - indeed, 18 is the most frequent one now but it's far from universal. In the Czech lands, for example, we've had age of majority between 14 and 24 years at different moments - cs.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zletilost#Historie - and in the ancient times, the age of majority depended on the aristocratic status or class (higher aristocrats were generally younger when recognized as adults - because they were learning more intensely as kids). May 16, 2016 at 11:09
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    "Most countries, if not all, define the age of adulthood at 18 years." Reference?
    – user69715
    May 16, 2016 at 16:32
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    Even though not all countries have it, 18 is by far the most common. So I guess it still is an interesting question.
    – taninamdar
    May 16, 2016 at 21:23

6 Answers 6

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Age of consent laws could, in part, explain why we've settled on 18 or ages near to it. Age of consent statutes can be dated as far back as 1275 in England and were adopted in a number of other countries throughout Europe. Some of the first interpretations settled on the "age of marriage", which at the time was 12. Part of the problem with having a set number that determines the age of consent is explained by Robertson:

In trials, juries were often unwilling to simply enforce the law. Rather than focusing strictly on age, they made judgments about whether the appearance and behavior of a girl fit their notions of a child and a victim. It was not only that relying solely on age seemed arbitrary to them; at least until the end of the 19th century, age had limited salience in other aspects of daily life. Laws and regulations based on age were uncommon until the 19th century, and consequently so was possession of proof of age or even knowledge of a precise date of birth.

Once it became possible to reliable check the age of a person, the laws demarcating age became easier to enforce. Robertson continues:

At the end of 19th century, moral reformers drew the age of consent into campaigns against prostitution. Revelations of child prostitution were central to those campaigns, a situation that resulted, reformers argued, from men taking advantage of the innocence of girls just over the age of consent. The outcry it provoked pushed British legislators to raise the age of consent to 16 years, and stirred reformers in the U.S, such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the British Empire, and Europe to push for similar legislation. By 1920, Anglo-American legislators had responded by increasing the age of consent to 16 years, and even as high as 18 years.

What followed in the 20th century was a debate on what constitutes physiological, and psychological maturity. No doubt that this and other factors such as: compulsory schooling, mandatory military service, liquor laws, and the rise of higher education as a intermediary between adolescence and adulthood, played a role in us collectively as a society deciding that someone is an adult at 18.

Source: Stephen Robertson, "Age of Consent Laws," in Children and Youth in History, Item #230, https://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/case-studies/230 (accessed May 26, 2016).

Edit

This paper by T.E. James (published in 1960 so it is a bit dated) suggests that common law settled on 21 as the age of adulthood. Common law was influenced heavily by Roman and Justinian laws, though these generally settled on 15 as the age of majority. James write:

In the absence of any clear authority, it may be assumed that at one time between the ninth and tenth century, fifteen was also the age of majority in England; but, by the time of the Magna Carta, this age had been raised to twenty-one, at least so far as men holding in knight service were concerned.

I think some have mentioned that age might have been linked to the increased weight of armor. I think there seems to be some truth in that. The fact that James writes in 1960 that the age of majority is 21 and that it has been that way for centuries (at least in England and some other European countries) lends itself to the argument that 18 might be a relatively recent age change.

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    Bureaucrats and officers of the law like clear-cut, objective criteria -- so birth certificates, various identification laws, and the use of age as the discriminating factor become interconnected as we delegate decisions to officialdom. As you pointed out in this answer, activists found this to be a great lever to achieve their goals. "Age of majority" has become the catch-all for all questions in this modern world. May 27, 2016 at 20:29
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For a long time, 21 was the "age of adulthood". From Encyclopedia of Adult Development:

As early as the thirteenth century, age 21 was an important marker in Britain, at least for men. This was the age, for example, when they could begin to serve as knights. It was believed that the physical requirements of combat - to wear a heavy suit of armor and simultaneously lift a sword or lance - could only be met by men who had attained age 21.

It wasn't until the 26th amendment in 1971 that the voting age in the United States was lowered from 21 to 18. A big reason for this was the outcry that men were "old enough to fight, but too young to vote".

I would guess that the reason men were drafted into the military at age 18 was because of the need for as many soldiers as possible and since armor was no longer in use, a person did not have to be as physically developed to serve as a soldier. Additionally, most men finish high school at age 18 so they have all of their primary and secondary education completed.

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  • Right, I know in US it was lowered from 21 to 18 in one of the constitutional amendments due to the Vietnam War. But the question remains why 18 is so popular in much of the rest of the world.
    – DrZ214
    Jun 2, 2016 at 2:42
  • I believe the reason for drafting men at 18 was to enable the completion of military service before men had married - as married men often had exemptions for obvious reasons - at least until the First World War. Aug 19, 2016 at 5:22
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    I'm not sure that being an infantry private was or is less strenuous than being a medieval knight in armor. Many surviving suits of armor were made for boys who no doubt sometimes wore them. Infantrymen carry loads that might weigh as much as medieval armor and not be weight distributed as well. A man who watched Union troops march by during the US Civil War thought their 60 pound packs were too heavy, especially for the boys among them.
    – MAGolding
    Apr 29, 2017 at 17:57
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On a minor detail, as far as I know ancient Roman law had several stages and ages of majority.

Roman boys had a ceremony to remove the toga praetexta with a broad purple border, and their protective bulla praetexa amulets, and assume the pure white toga virilis, the toga of manhood, at 14, considered to be the age of male puberty in ancient Rome. Roman boys would have their first military service sometime in their late teens. And I believe the end of adolescence and the age of complete adulthood was 25. And the minimum age to run for elected public office was 30.

So the closest fit between ancient Roman and modern legal ages is that the minimum age for military service is similar.

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    Do you have a source for assuming toga virilis at 14? Sources I looked at placed it normally closer to 17, only occasionally as early as 14.
    – justCal
    May 26, 2016 at 22:57
  • You've got the ages wrong. While under Sulla's reforms the minimum age to be elected Quaestor (first step in the cursus honorum towards being elected consul) was 30, you've ignored that two minor offices, those of vigintiviri and military tribune had to have both been held first. Sep 9, 2023 at 12:27
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I believe that the main reason why the legal age has been internationally set at 18 years of age was because of WWII. During the Second World War, the military draft age was lowered to 18; 18-year-olds could be legally drafted to fight wars for their nations. The Vietnam War was a pivotal moment; if 18-20-year-olds were being forced to fight for their nation, why is that they were still not allowed to vote?

But if you actually read history, you will see that the age of majority is really meaningless for much of history. You will find that most minimum legal age restrictions were either much lower (12-14 years) or non-existent. Modern society places lots of weight on the legal age; your 18th birthday is a drastic turning point, legally. According to the law, the moment you turn 18, you can sign contracts, work unrestricted, purchase firearms, own property, marry without parental consent, consent to sex with anyone, and so forth. There is a large difference between 17 and 18, legally, even though the biological difference is minimal.

If you look at different time periods though, different societies set different age limits. 20 was the Biblical age of military service, for instance (Numbers 1:1-3).

There is nothing special about 18. The really scary thing is that modern people think that 18-year-olds are children, whereas decades back, they were fully functioning as adults. It was not uncommon to be married by 18 a few decades back.

We are definitely not rushing anyone into adulthood. If anything, childhood has been extended well into the 20s with disastrous effect.

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    This would benefit from some supporting references and a less US-centric viewpoint.
    – Steve Bird
    Sep 7, 2023 at 19:49
  • > If anything, childhood has been extended well into the 20s with disastrous effect. [citation needed] Sep 8, 2023 at 18:06
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Perhaps it is worth mentioning the Jewish traditions, although it is hard to say to what extent they might have influenced Christian perceptions of age.

Bar Mitzvah (Bat Mitzvah for girls) is a ritual that is celebrated at the age of 13. It is considered as a coming of age, where a boy abandons the society of women and joins the society of men. To succeed in this ritual he has to demonstrate signs of maturity, which includes basic literacy - like reading from Talmud, answering questions about the basics of the Jewish law, etc. This seems particularly meaningful in societies where there is gender separation in regard to prayer, household duties, military obligations, etc. Indeed, in such traditional societies little boys are cared for by their mothers and grandmothers, with little direct participation of men. Yet, at some point this transition must happen, and it requires both some preparation and testing readiness for the adult life.

Reaching the age of bar or bat mitzvah signifies becoming a full-fledged member of the Jewish community with the responsibilities that come with it. These include moral responsibility for one's own actions; eligibility to be called to read from the Torah and lead or participate in a minyan; the right to possess personal property and to legally marry on one's own according to Jewish law; the duty to follow the 613 laws of the Torah and keep the halakha; and the capacity to testify as a witness in a beth din (rabbinical court) case.

The tradition for girls mostly has to do with their readiness for marriage. My understanding is that it climbed in importance due to the development of the reformist/non-orthodox Judaism, tending to emancipate women.

A couple of quotes from Wikipedia, regarding the specific age:

The Bible does not explicitly specify the age of 13. Passages in the books of Exodus and Numbers note the age of majority for army service as twenty. Machzor Vitri notes that Genesis 34:25 refers to Levi as a "man", when a calculation from other verses suggests that Levi was aged 13 at the time.

The age of thirteen is mentioned in the Mishnah as the time one is obligated to observe the Torah's commandments: "At five years old one should study the Scriptures, at ten years for the Mishnah, at 13 for the commandments..."

and

The term "bar mitzvah" appears first in the Talmud, meaning "one who is subject to the law", though it does not refer to age. The term "bar mitzvah", in reference to age, cannot be clearly traced earlier than the 14th century, the older rabbinical term being "gadol" (adult) or "bar 'onshin" (one legally responsible for own misdoings).

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There were several reasons for 18 years old being the threshold of adulthood.

The first reason was military, as embodied in the 26th Amendment. During World War II, Congress lowered the draft age from 21 to 18, more or less in line with the other major combatants. This actually became a sore point during the Vietnam War, when the slogan became, "old enough to fight, old enough to vote." And "voting" was basically the key right of adulthood.

A second reason was that until the post war period, most children completed their (secondary) education at the age of 18, and entered the work force at that time. Here, again, they had "adult" responsibilities at age 18.

A third reason is that 18 is the maximum age of "consent" for marriage, and "marital relations" (including those undertaken outside of marriage). Although some states and countries have lower ages of consent.

It's true that for most people, particularly men, intellectual development is not complete, and perhaps one is not fully adult until age 25. (This is why a Congressman must be that age.) But that's not the point, which is that an 18 year old is "more adult than not," which is why the line is set there.

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