I sat across from an Australian while on a four-hour train ride from Switzerland to France. He was nice, but mostly talked to the woman in the section of seats on the other side of the train. However, when he did talk to my friend and me, I was struck by the way he treated me. When he asked about which university I attended, what my major was, and what my classes were like, I realized he was treating me like an adult. And it was weird, because I wasn’t used to it. Then he mentioned that he had a 16-year old son who was living and attending school by himself in Germany. My friend looked at him and said, “My mom would be messaging me non-stop.”
I nodded. “So would mine.”
The man was confused. “Really? I mean, my wife and I try not to worry about our son. He can take care of himself.”
This was when I realized that 16 is a different age in America. I believe that all 16-year-olds are young and still have a lot to learn. But then again, I’m 21, young, and still have a lot to learn. However, just because I’m young doesn’t mean I’m also a teenager. It also doesn’t mean I’m inexperienced.
18 is the legal age of adulthood for Americans. At 18, Americans can vote and join the military. The drinking age, however, has always been a debate in America. When my parents were in college in the ’80s, they could only drink beer and wine at 18. Hard liquor was off-limits until 21. When I was in England, I hadn’t turned 21, yet it wasn’t a big deal to order a cider. In the US, however, it’s such a big deal to turn 21 that the day is excessively celebrated. After watching a bunch of 18-year-olds get black-out drunk in the UK, I don’t think that giving them access to all alcohol at once is a good idea, especially since most families in the US don’t usually introduce a healthy amount of alcohol to their teenagers during meals like they do in Europe. Instead, some sort of a transition into alcohol would be beneficial.
I had a hard time transitioning from 17 to 18. I understood that I was legally an adult, but I didn’t feel like it. I was told, “You might think you’re an adult, but you’re still just a teenager.” The transition to college helped because it increased my independence. However, it was the summer breaks that threw me back in time. I was back in the house where I grew up, where society told me that I needed to do this, this, and this in order to have a productive summer and, therefore, a productive life. It didn’t help that for the longest time, I couldn’t get a summer job. When I did, I was told by several costumers that I didn’t look a day over 15.
I wonder why some people have the need to point this out. Telling me that I look like a teenager is the same as telling me that I look immature and inexperienced. Personally, I don’t think I look 15, even though I know I look young. On the other hand, I know it’s meant as a compliment, but a lot of people who have known me for years tell me, “Wow. I can’t believe how old you’ve gotten.” More commonly, they direct this at my parents. It’s strange. To me, it’s normal that I’ve gotten older. And it’s normal for time to pass quickly. That’s life.
In the US, your 20s are seen as an extension of your teens. It doesn’t help that in order to be truly independent, you need to have transportation, have your own income, and live on your own. This is hard to do in today’s society, since most young adults have to go to college. Since a student isn’t usually out of college until the age of 22, it’s difficult to be fully independent. And with the job market, it’s hard for students to make enough money to move out of their parents’ house during college.
In physiological terms, the period between teenagerhood and young adulthood is called emerging adulthood. In this phase, a person struggles to find his or her identity. However, I believe that people find their identity throughout their entire lives. While others think that age equates experience, I know that every person has had an experience that no one else has. The term “emerging adulthood” is a newer one, but one that America has embodied the further we go into the 21st century. It’s a term that has extended teenagerhood.
When I consider the Australian, I think that having full independence at 16 would be challenging. Parents should help ease the transition for their children by being there for them when they’re teens, but also preparing them to become adults the closer they get to 18. 16-year-olds should begin to take on responsibilities and experiences beyond crushing schoolwork in order to prepare them for adulthood. After all, young adulthood is not an extension of teenagerhood. It’s the next step in life.