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10 June 2023

Fear about young adults’ maturity is just a way of trying to control them

Better to help this generation of Peter Pans find their way out of Neverland.

By Marie Le Conte

I remember being 22 and feeling very overwhelmed. I’d finished my degree, found gainful employment, and was entirely financially independent. I had my whole life in front of me. It was terrifying. 

I talked about it with a friend and we wondered why so much popular culture focused on the chaos of teenagehood and university when, really, what we were now going through was a hell of a lot more stressful. At least at 16 you’re an idiot with a safety net; we still felt useless in our early twenties but we knew that, if we fell, no one would be there to catch us.

In the end we stumbled a few times, scratched ourselves, then got back up. It took a few more years after that for me to feel like I’d got a real handle on myself. I’m 31 now and am absolutely, definitely an adult. I own several seasonal pyjamas. Spiritually speaking, I am now closer to retirement than to 15-year-olds.

Does this mean I wasn’t an adult when I was 22, that I shouldn’t have been trusted with running my own life? I dated a few men who were older than me in those years – were they taking advantage of me?

These are questions that wouldn’t feel out of place in today’s online discussions. Only last week, the Sunday Times published an open letter “calling for doctors to be extremely cautious when deciding whether to refer anyone under the age of 25 for cross-sex hormones or for surgery”.

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In 2020 a 22-year-old woman wrote to Slate’s sex advice column to try to settle a long-running argument she had with older friends “about whether women and gay men under 25 are able to consent to sex” (presumably they didn’t have any worries about straight men). “I am told, at least once every couple weeks, that if you’re under 25, you’re incapable of consent because your ‘frontal lobes are still developing’,” she wrote.

Worryingly, her friends’ beliefs aren’t entirely fringe any more. Over the past few years a number of celebrity couples with noticeable age gaps – from Billie Eilish and Jesse Rutherford to Florence Pugh and Zach Braff – have attracted intense negative reactions from younger people. The specific point about frontal lobes has also been kicking about for some time, despite not being based on any rigorous research. As the developmental neuroscientist Kate Mills told Slate last year, “we’re still not there with research to really say the brain is mature at 25, because we still don’t have a good indication of what maturity even looks like.”

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On a similar note, the psychology professor Laurence Steinberg wrote in 2012 that “different brain regions and systems mature along different timetables”, meaning that “there is no single age at which the adolescent brain becomes an adult brain”.

Still, brain development is mentioned whenever young adults making big decisions are brought into the conversation. It isn’t hard to see why: feelings and opinions are mushy and changeable, and who can argue with hard science, and with the seemingly objective fact that 24-year-olds still aren’t quite compos mentis?

Straying from what sounds like clear biological reality means needing to reckon with the fact that adulthood will only ever be a social construct, shaped less by people’s bodies than by the world which they inhabit.

[See also: Does punishing adults for their childhood mistakes really improve society?]

Take the age of consent, which is now, after much campaigning from LGBT activists, 16 for everyone. Did you know that, in 1917, it was very nearly raised to 17 instead? In the end the amendment was defeated in the House of Commons by one single vote. Had a couple of MPs elected over a hundred years ago decided to change their minds, teenagers today might still have to wait an extra year before being legally allowed to consent to sex.

Similarly, parliament took a few years to decide to lower the age of majority – that is, legal adulthood – from 21 to 18. In a debate held in 1967 Michael Stewart, the first secretary of state, argued that “in the early Middle Ages, when hacking one another about was one of the major occupations of the upper classes, it was quite natural and practical that the age at which one was strong enough to bear and use armour should be the age of majority”.

Jousting had become somewhat more of a niche sport by the 1960s, and so it made little sense for 20-year-olds to still not be considered full adults. In short: it is right to say that the age at which one becomes an adult isn’t innate, and so it can be up for discussion. As with any debate, however, it seems worth questioning the motives of those seeking to shift the dial.

Majority was lowered by three years because lawmakers felt that society had changed and young adults were ready to fully enter society earlier. If someone is now arguing that a legal adult cannot consent to certain things, are they saying that the world has regressed, and they are less capable than they were thirty or forty years ago, when they were likely to already be married and with children by 25? If so, what proof can they offer?

If neuroscience cannot provide the grounding that it is claimed to, what else is there, aside from poorly disguised paternalism? Gender critical campaigners once solely focused on teenagers deciding to transition; now apparently they worry about people midway through their twenties too. If it looks and feels like a slippery slope, isn’t that just what it is?

Of course, they are only one side of this unholy alliance. On the other lie some of the young adults themselves, who claim that any relationship with a semi-significant age gap is by definition unhealthy. Where has this self-infantilising strain of thought come from? By arguing that people their age cannot truly consent to a relationship with, say, a 26-year-old, they are doing reactionaries’ work for them.

Becoming an adult means becoming entirely accountable for your actions for the first time in your life. It’s overwhelming, and instinctively wanting to retreat into the cocoon of late childhood is understandable. That doesn’t mean the impulse shouldn’t be fought. There are untold joys to be found in the freedoms of adulthood, but the flipside is greater responsibility.

The forces currently seeking to delay maturity are doing so because they wish to exert greater control over young adults whose decisions they object to. Instead of buying into their shoddy arguments, the rest of us ought to help this generation of Peter Pans find their way out of Neverland.

[See also: Young adults in Britain today are trapped in permanent adolescence]

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