The Relationship of Age, Security and Individual Liberty

Kevin Walling, J.D., M.P.A.

relationship security age liberty

Recently Congress moved to set the purchasing age of tobacco related products, including vaping products containing nicotine, to 21. By doing so, the state fulfills one of its primary duties of protecting the health and welfare of people dwelling within the United States. This is argumentatively at the expense of the state’s other competing duty, that of supporting individual autonomy and liberty and perhaps delaying one of the markers of autonomy and liberty, adulthood, by increasing the age persons can access ‘adult’ products. It is worth examining the markers of adulthood to determine whether the state moving the age to purchase tobacco related products to 21 makes sense in contemporary society.

The age of majority, the age when a child is considered to have become an adult, has varied throughout the history of the world, but is always reflective of prevailing social conditions. For instance, during Middle Ages in Europe, the typical age of majority for a farmer would have been approximately 14 or 15 years of age. Due to the physical challenges and time required to learn to use heavy combat equipment for military service during that same time period, the age of obtaining majority for those participating in elite classes of military service was 21 years of age. This elite status of the age of majority, 21, would be adopted by nations following the traditions of England, including America.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Americans tended to discontinue education and begin to work during their teen years, due to relatively low incomes and difficult financial concerns of families. Americans often did not to leave family households due to poor economic opportunity. So legal adulthood being set at 21 did not rub against the social conditions of the time of delayed marriage, leaving home, etc.

The age of majority in most American states stayed around the age of 21 until World War II, when the needs of war once again altered the age of majority by lowering it to 18 since we needed young people to fight in the war. Following the war, a great deal of economic prosperity occurred, making it easier to obtain the markers of adulthood. People could obtain a well-paying job, it was easier to obtain financial independence from parents, marriage could occur faster, etc.

Beginning the late 1970s, the economic prosperity for average Americans began to slow and shift. Higher paid factory jobs began disappearing, more education for jobs became a norm as jobs shifted toward improved technology and marriage became delayed. University education was no longer merely desirable but a requirement for success. Those trends continue to this day for young adults.

Because the traditional markers of adulthood have once again become delayed for many young adult Americans – financial independence from parents, moving out of parent households, obtainment of well-paying full-time jobs and marriage – perhaps it isn’t necessarily harmful that another marker of adulthood, the ability to consume ‘adult’ products such as tobacco, be similarly delayed. It is worth considering what other aspects of adulthood and the age of majority will continue to shift as we move further into a century with rapidly shifting societal needs.

Pursuing an affordable college education is an important way to attain the markers of adulthood. Consider enrolling in one of the programs offered Grand Canyon University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Students in these programs have the opportunity to set their own pace with online programs. To learn more, visit our website or click on the Request Info button at the top of this page.

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