The average human lifespan today is 79 years. Our worldly activities are based on this number. The age we are at is the basis for our education, training, marriage, and retirement; and also, the basis for living according to the rules of a State. There is a legal age for voting, consuming alcohol, driving, and hunting. It is periodically also a cause of social schism and societal predispositions – a 25 year old living off of their parents, a 40 year old on a dating site, and a 60 year old intern, are all causes for raised eyebrows, demeaning whispers, and condescending attitudes. We have very specifically categorized our lifespan – infants are 0-2 years old, children 3-12, teenagers 13-19, young adults 20-around 30, middle age is the early 40s, retirement age is the 60s, and then comes the final old age.
The reason for these categories is two-fold: society and the market. In the society bucket, the ingredients are your biological clock (you will only be fertile for so long, you know), the cognitive clock (you can’t go to school at 50, you brain can absorb more when you are a teen), and the endurance clock (you have to earn as much as you can when you are young and able, after which you will be incapable as your body degrades). In the market bucket (my primary assumption here is that we are a consumerist and capitalist society to start with) businesses are set up with an intended “target consumer”. On the first day of my entrepreneurship training, I was asked to write down the characteristics of my target population and the first point was their age. Insurance plans, real estate, rejuvenating under-eye creams, fantasy young-adult novels, diapers, movie CDs, tech gadgets, vacation rentals – there is no end to this list.
While these two types of segregation are the giants, there is an additional version to add to this – the psychology – that subtle touch of “maturity” that adds so much color to this age-based division. An infant is a baby, but an infant is also slang for a fully grown man who is immature. A grandpa is an old man, but also jargon for a 20-something man who is too preachy. “Act like an adult!” is used while reprimanding a 30-something person, and “Don’t act like an adult” is used in the same tone for an 8-year old. While society and the market decide the numbers, our psyche decides the character and personality to go with those numbers. A 10-year old doesn’t know how to help with a financial situation, and a 40-year old certainly must know that. A child is not expected to help in the kitchen, but if your husband does not, that’s not acceptable. A child can scream and sulk and when not given something they want, but shame on a 30-year old for sulking. What then, is adulthood? A young preachy boy acting like an adult or an actual semantic adult over the age of 30?
For a brief moment here, cut back to the 1800s. The average human lifespan was approximately 40 years. So middle age was 20 years in the 1800s? And this was not the time when humans were hunter gatherers and cave dwellers, this was the century when the Napoleonic Wars happened, Humphrey Davy invented the voltaic cells, Thomas Jefferson became President of the newly formed United States, the first known asteroids were discovered, and Ludwig van Beethoven created his Symphony No. 1. So, we did need maturity, adulthood, common sense, intelligence, and all of that to survive and propagate our species. We needed politics and strategy to explore, colonize and trade. Who were adults when people only lived till 40? There was no age limit for voting, there was no age limit for going to war. Young kids were in the army and taught to wield weapons. It was not until 1971 that the United States even thought about introducing an age factor into voting.
One reason why voting age is important is because at that time, the voter is expected to understand the impact of the government in their lives, understand social policies, and be able to make an informed judgement of which leader to elect to live in peace for the next term. In today’s scenario, 18 is also the age that marks the end of school, where such social studies are taught. In 1850 however, all that mattered was that people would vote, irrespective of their ages (in the case of the US, only adult white males were allowed to vote, but that is a topic for another time).
If adulthood is defined as maturity, then some 9-year old girls can be a adults. If adulthood is defined as the ability to perform such cognizant activities as vote, then the adulthood of 1850 is not the same as the one of 2015. If adulthood is defined as fending for the family, then a 12-year old hunter-gatherer is as much an adult as the 40-year old Wall Street stockbroker. It is all orchestrated by the world you live in, the impetus to propel you into maturity comes from circumstances and not age. Some people just piddle their way into adulthood, taking their time, learning at their pace, and often not learning at all, but hoping that someone will assist. Some people have a maturity overdrive and are on top of everything they need to live a wholesome life – in other words they do everything according to protocols set by the society and the market. I know heads of households who cannot calculate taxes, and I know children who can debate the Ten Commandments.
Adulthood is just a keyword, but its meaning is personal and subjective, as is its manifestation. It comes from observation and circumstance and cannot be force fed to people with their birthday cakes. While we dance to the tunes of society and the market, let us also take a moment to revel in the psyche.