Observing the United States in the 1830s, the French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his Democracy in America that “the position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in one.” Tocqueville was observing the exceptionality of American society, with its strong focus on local communities, its robust civil society, and its rapid industrial and westward expansion. Ironically, Tocqueville’s sentence can be applied to the United States today in its systemic exclusion of young people from social settings, where it is an international outlier.
We are the only developed country in the world with a national drinking and smoking age as high as 21, three years past legal adulthood as it is recognized in the 26th Amendment, which prohibits states from setting voting ages higher than 18.
As a voting adult, at age 18, you can legally marry without parental consent, enlist in the military, and in most states, purchase firearms. Despite being an adult endowed with various rights and social responsibilies, you may still be discriminated against and excluded from social settings that serve alcohol. Here are a few examples of the ways young adults aged 18, 19, and 20 are discriminated against across the country:
- They are not allowed into most comedy clubs and shows that serve alcohol.
- They are not allowed into airline lounges with open bars, without an adult over the age of 21 accompanying them.
- They are not allowed to sit at bars, even if they do not intend on drinking alcohol.
- They are not allowed to check into most hotels, even those without in-room minibars.
- They are subject to zero-tolerance laws, which means that even if their blood alcohol content is below the 0.08% limit for adults 21+, they are subject to a stricter 0.0% or 0.02% limit, depending on the state. Many states penalize these young adults by suspending their driver’s licenses until they turn 21, severely restricting their mobility and job opportunities.
Minors under the age of 18, like me, are even more socially and legally restricted than young adults under 21. Crucially, we cannot sign documents for ourselves. This means that in most states, persons under 18 cannot have abortions without their parents finding out. This leads to situations where parents can stop their child from getting an abortion and force them to marry the individual who impregnated them, normally under the banner of religious freedom. Further, the fact that under 18s cannot sign documents for themselves means that teenagers acquiring a learner’s permit, getting a routine cleaning, or applying for academic programs is a hassle and must be done with parental consent.
Moreover, we are often forced out of stores as “unaccompanied minors.” I recently went to my local Barnes and Noble store, in Connecticut, and was met with a sign reading: “unaccompanied minors may be asked to leave.” Minors under 17 cannot watch R-rated movies without an adult over the age of 21 present. Amtrak, the national rail operator, restricts minors under the age of 16 from using its services. Thus, in America, I can be asked to leave bookstores, I am not allowed to see movies with sex, drugs, or too much gore, and I’ve only been allowed to legally use trains by myself for the past two months.
Compare this with what I’m allowed to do as a 16-year-old in Switzerland, where I attend boarding school. I’m legally allowed to drink beer and wine (the minimum age for beer and wine is 16; it is 18 for higher-proof alcohols.) I can check into most hotels with parental consent. I can enter a bar or comedy club, as long as I don’t break the law by drinking any alcohol stronger than beer or wine. There is no minimum age to use trains. Swiss citizens, once they turn 18, are considered full adults. While smoking and drinking are not healthy, as adults, they are treated like adults and allowed to choose for themselves. Almost all other European countries follow a similar approach.
The United States is an exception to the norm in the developed world, and not in the positive, Tocquevillian sense. We are exceptional in our anti-democratic culture of youth oppression and social exclusion, restricting various services to under 18s and restricting 18-20 year olds from various social spaces. If the United States seeks to truly live up to that Tocquevillian democratic ideal, then we Americans should work – locally and nationally – to get rid of senseless age-based regulations whose sole purpose is to exclude youth from social spaces. We should pressure our elected officials into adopting common-sense legislation that gives youth, both under 18 and under 21, the broad social rights – access to medical care, social spaces, and public transportation – they currently lack.