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Harrington: Age Of Adulthood

11/09/10 5:55PM By Elaine Harrington
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(HOST) Commentator Elaine Harrington has been thinking about rights, privileges - and the legal definition of adulthood.

(HARRINGTON) Voters recently decided to change the Vermont Constitution to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries - if they turn 18 before November's general election. This raises questions about the age of adulthood, and it brings back some memories.
In fall 2008, my UVM students were incredibly energized by Barack Obama's candidacy, and most voted - for the first time. They obtained absentee ballots or registered in Burlington - and exercised that right to choose. But it was simply assumed - not cherished as a significant passage to adulthood. That marker remains, for many young people, the right to drink.
Back in 1968, adulthood began at age 18 - especially with the Vietnam War and the draft in effect. Alcohol was not an issue, in most states, nor was starting work or getting married, if you didn't go to college. But being liable for sudden military service was a big concern.  Eighteen- to 20-year-olds had no influence in decisions about the war - or the emerging issues of working women, segregation in the South, and urban and rural poverty. No influence - until 1971 when the 26th Amendment guaranteed voting rights at age 18.
When we discussed the 2008 election, my students were astonished that my generation could drink at 18 and get drafted for war - but couldn't vote. Were they then more adult than we had been, or less?
On my 18th birthday, I was working in New York as a secretary, and friends took me to a Park Avenue bar for my first drink, a gin and tonic. My passage into adulthood felt complete - except for an increasing desire to vote.  Turmoil in our country - and frustration - was high in 1968, my first year as a non-voting adult. That year the Vietnam War would take more than 16 thousand young American lives. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy shocked us, and riots in black sections of major cities left 46 dead. Columbia University and other campuses lit up with protests and police confrontations. I believe that my generation's rebellion came from being disenfranchised, as much as from the issues.
The age of adulthood is a moving target. We've pushed it back to 21 with the drinking age - but some 17-year-olds will now vote in primaries. Which takes more mature deliberation and has more significant consequences - drinking or voting?
One of my students recently wrote: "I am a criminal. At least I was one until my 21st birthday last week." He had been drinking responsibly for two years, he said, with the knowledge and expectation of family and society.
Today's college students and young workers have legal rights and the vote - but are being treated like children when it comes to a personal choice.

So will 17-year-olds use their new political voice wisely? I'm not sure. Should 19- and 20-year-olds be allowed to drink? I think they should.  But even more, I believe that we should have one clear age for adulthood.

(TAG) For more commentaries by Elaine Harrington, go to VPR-dot-net.
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