Age of Majority

by Esmerelda Weatherwax (Feb. 2009)

In Scotland the age of majority, when a young person is no longer the responsibility of his or her parents is 16. But despite being able to own land, enter into contracts, enter into marriage without parental permission Scottish teenagers cannot vote for the government until they are aged 18, like the teenagers in the rest of the UK.

Every so often some focus group or the other puts forward the recommendation that the age of majority, or at the very least the age of franchise, i.e. voting, be lowered in England and Wales from 18 to 16. 

This is illogical. I want to make the case for raising the age of majority and the voting right which goes hand in hand with it. I won’t presume to say that this will be correct for all countries, just Great Britain. I will leave the age of consent and marriage alone. That is another essay and one it’s too cold and wet today to contemplate.

When I was growing up the age of Majority and voting were the same age, 21. 21 had been the age of majority for centuries, that being the age by which young men had finished their 7 years apprenticeships and were about to embark on 7 years practise as a journeyman.

To digress, the age was younger in Anglo-Saxon England and girls reached majority younger than boys as they were considered to mature earlier. Cf Jewish Bat Mitzvah at 12 and Bar Mitzvah at 13.

In 1918 the
Representation of the People Act gave the vote to all men over 21 years and to all women over 30 years, extended to all women over 21 in 1928. At that time, the majority of boys and girls left school at age 14 and went to work straight away. By the time they were able to vote and considered able to fend for themselves they had been working, earning, contributing and maturing in the world of work for over 6 years. Even those lucky few who went on to further and high education had qualified, or were near qualifying as nurses, teachers and suchlike. Those who were still at university had probably done National Service beforehand, or war service.

The school leaving age was raised to 15 in 1944 and to 16 in 1972.

The age of majority was lowered to 18 on 1 January 1970.

The government intends to raise the school leaving age to 17 in 2013 and 18 in 2015. Very few teenagers now leave school at 16 and go straight into work. Even the jobs they aspire to, are qualified for and could do, are difficult to obtain as insurance companies are reluctant to give their employers insurance for employees under the age of 17. They are perceived as a risk, due to their youth and inexperience. Yes, I know they won’t get experience until they have worked for a while; it is a circular argument.

The government says that it wants 50% of all UK school leavers to go on to further education. With a gap year before University becoming almost normal that means that a substantial portion of our young people will not be entering the workplace full time until the age of 22/23. Add 6 years to that and logically that gives us an age of majority of 29.

To be sensible, that is older than necessary.

However I think the child protection measures put in place in the last 20 years suggest that the age should now be raised, back to 21.

The age at which a young person can purchase tobacco has recently been raised to 18. Very few shops will sell alcohol to young people under the age of 21. Some shops extend the 21 age to other prohibited items such as knives and glue. Even in one local shop, eggs. (This after a spate of egg throwing – I took a medium “basic” egg on the back of my leg from a little tyke on a pushbike one Sunday morning on my way home from church – and it was blooming sore!)

There were proposals in 2006 to raise the age for holding a driving licence from 17 to 18. Young people objected, but judging from their terrible spelling and punctuation in these comments made to The Times I doubt those objections would carry much weight if the government decided to proceed with legislation.

I strongly disagree with the change of the minimum driving age in England.I am 16, and turn 17 right at the beginning of september.I won’t be able to get to 6th form if i cannot learn and pass my driving test because there are no buses where i live. This is completly unreasonable,please think again!

The law appreciates that young people of 18 are more vulnerable than they will be once they reach their early 20s. The Children’s Act of 1989 gave Local Authorities the responsibility to continue mentoring young people who had been in their care after they reached the age of 18, recognising that in a well functioning family parental care would not stop, dead, on the 18th birthday. The fact that in middle age I still often seek the advice of my 83 year old Mother-in-law does not mean that the age of majority should be raised to 55; she sometimes seeks my advice in her turn.

Offenders aged between 18 and 20 are placed in separate YOI (Young Offender Institutions), separate from the over 21 adults (and the 15-17 year olds) where they are supposed to receive 25 hours of education every week.

Maternity units provide specialist care for the very young mother up to the age of 19.

There are even regulations in the food industry as to how old an assistant must be before he can use a bacon slicer. In my youth it was 17, I think it is now 18 and after a suitable training course but I am not certain.

The very measures designed to protect, in many cases rightly so, our children and young people have had the effect of raising the age at which they achieve a practical maturity. This is not the same as their superficial sophistication, as demonstrated by a superior ability to use a computer or a mobile phone.

The arguments for lowering the age of majority to the age of 16 are very similar to those I recall when it was lowered to age 18. Some young people are keen; I recall that as a 15 year old in 1969 I felt the same.

The arguments
include that:-

oung people are tax payers and thus should be able to vote.

A new born baby that inherits a vast trust fund from a wealthy grandparent will pay tax on the investment income once it exceeds the single person’s personal allowance. A child of 5 who buys (under adult supervision) a beanie baby or some other toy with her Christmas present money will be paying tax on that toy in the form of VAT @ 15%. Should babies and 5 year olds be able to vote and manage their own affairs? No. And very few young people under the age of 19 pay income tax from full time jobs as most are still at school or in some kind of training.

Many young people are in responsible jobs such as student nurses, policemen and the services.
Surely that responsibility should give them a say in government.

The answer to that in 1969 was that it is by taking on those duties that young people attain the maturity they will need at 21 to be able to take on the responsibility of adulthood. Today for their own protection nobody under the age of 18 (aside from child carers) gets to take much responsibility at all.

Lowering the age to 16 will encourage young people’s interest in politics
and inspire them to use their vote.
It is young people between the age of 18 and 24 who are the least likely to exercise their hard won democratic right. If they are not interested in democracy yet at 18 then raising the age may exercise their minds. The history of how the Suffragettes fought to get Englishwomen the vote had sufficient effect on me that I have voted in every single election, local and national, held since I reached majority. Giving us all some decent politicians to vote for might have a good effect over all age groups.

At 16 young people could be married, running a home and raising a family.

In the early 1930s the average age for entering a first marriage was 26 for men and 24 for women. In the early 1970s it was 23 for men and 21 for women. In 2003 it was 30 for men and 28 for women. So young people are not taking on that responsibility while young any more.

You cannot take away an age related right once it has been given.

Of course you can. Tobacco purchase from 16 to 18.

School leaving age from 14 to 15, to 16 to 17 to 18.

Receipt of old age pension for women born after 1950 from 60 to 65.

As an aside has anyone else here read Neville Shute’s book, In the Wet? It is several books in one, including time travel, future incarnation and ESP but one of the things it describes is an Australia of the future (about 1980; like 1984 it was written just after the war) where citizens are awarded an extra vote as and when they achieve a milestone of maturity. Things like serving a number of years in the forces or public service. I have not read it for a few years but so far as I can recall it throws up some interesting ideas.

I am not so despairing of all the current generation of teenagers as some, possibly because I have one myself and have a lot to do with them. Most of the ones I meet are growing up decently, and will make fine adults.

But they are not adults yet.

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Esmerelda Weatherwax is a regular contributor to the Iconoclast our community blog. To view her entries please click here. 

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