Adulthood Defined and Undefined

The legal definition of adulthood, which has varied with place and time, is related to the notion of responsibility. An adult is a person who is capable of assuming responsibility for his or her own affairs, an age that has been, somewhat arbitrarily, set at somewhere between 18 and 21 years. The law also recognizes, however, that individual responsibility and the related concept of competency—the ability to handle one's life and property—vary not only with chronological age but also with the physical, cognitive, and emotional state of the person. In fact, at one time, mentally retarded persons, and certain mentally disordered persons as well, were referred to by both the legal and medical profession as "children" or, by the compromise term "adult-children." In popular parlance, an adult can also have "the mind of a child" or behave "like a child."

In addition to the mentally retarded and mentally disordered, there has always been a sizable group of people who, though old enough and mentally capable of exercising the responsibility of adulthood, continued to be dependent on some other person or group for their very survival. This was particularly true of women living during previous centuries: In many ways, they were treated as if they were children who could not take care of themselves and did not know what was best for them. Husbands and boyfriends of today often treat mature women as children, referring to them as "baby," "baby doll," "my little girl," or similar diminutive terms of the sort that are more appropriate for small children.

Economic and social changes during our own time have extended the period of dependency on parents and the age at which most young people are able to assume the responsibilities of "adulthood." A modern man or woman may not have a full-time job until after age 30 and wait until after age 35, or even age 40, to marry and have children. In fact, Keniston (1970) proposed that a new developmental stage between adolescence and young adulthood, which he referred to as youth, came into being during the 1950s and 1960s. This youth stage consists of individuals who spend many years as undergraduate and graduate students in colleges and universities before entering the adult world of work. A reluctance or inability to assume the role of an adult may keep young people in school long after they are scheduled to graduate.

In addition to adults who act like children, many individuals who do not chronologically qualify as adults look and behave as if they were. Though legally classified as children, early maturing boys and girls may seem older than they are. This is especially true of physically or mentally precocious teenagers who engage in purposeful, productive work, and who have children and assume the responsibilities of caring for dependents and contributing to the community. Early maturation is, however, not invariably associated with good adjustment, particularly in the case of girls. Finally, a small percentage of children are afflicted with physical disorders such as progeria, which make them look much older than their chronological ages would indicate.

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