Changing ideas on majority age

CHEYENNE -- Wyoming engaged in prolonged opposition to raising the legal age for drinking alcohol.

The arguments against raising the age from 19 to 21 were two-fold.

-- If 19-year-olds are old enough to serve in the military, they are old enough to handle beer and other alcoholic drinks.

-- The state has an obligation to continue its historical tradition of nose-thumbing the federal government and its mandates

The stakes were high.

If the state didn't have a 21-age drinking law in place by July 1988, the government threatened to cut $8.2 million from the state's share of federal highway funds immediately. The feds would continue to withhold the money until the state changed the drinking age.

In 1988 Wyoming did not enjoy a fat stream of income.

So Wyoming became the last state to raise its minimum drinking age to 21.

Gov. Mike Sullivan signed into law a bill raising the age from 19 effective July 1, 1988.

Wyoming, like most states, sets the age of majority at 18. At that age, the state's young residents can vote, get married and gamble.

Yet they still cannot buy alcohol legally or rent a car.

Most states observe the same inconsistent and random policies toward teens.

Now some scientists say that in most people the parts of the brain that signal majority are not fully formed until age 25.

Maybe the rental car agencies and the insurance companies have been right all along.

Many adults, thinking back to their teenage years, would conclude they made some really stupid decisions when they were 18 years old.

That degree of immaturity may have continued into their 20s, and, for some, beyond.

Good decision making coincides in large part with experience. This is why a 16-year-old still is a child and is treated as such by the criminal justice system.

The leaders in the Middle Ages apparently considered 21 the age of adulthood.

This was the norm through the 19th and 20th centuries, according to an article in Governing Magazine.

By the middle of the 20th century, however, adulthood was moved up, partly as the result of wars. Eighteen-year-olds were drafted to fight in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

At that time, 18-year-olds without a high school diploma could get a job in manufacturing and earn enough to raise a family.They were encouraged to grow up fast.

Now, many more teenagers attend college and are financially dependent on their parents to some extent into their 20s.

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The current dark economy, as I heard the recession described last week, has resulted in many adult children moving back home. But that's another issue.

Seven states -- Arkansas, Nevada, Ohio, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin -- tie their majority age to 18 or graduation from high school, whichever is later.

Three states -- Alabama, Delaware and Nebraska -- have a majority age of 19. In Mississippi it is 21.

Despite the new scientific findings about adolescent brains being slower to develop than thought to be, it is unrealistic to expect states to raise the legal drinking age to 25.

Instead, a sizeable number of university presidents are calling for a national discussion on lowering the drinking age from 21.

By that age, a majority of young people have experimented with alcohol.

The thinking of the university heads is that if students learned to drink responsibility at a younger age, they would be less likely to engage in binge drinking.

Equally unrealistic as raising the legal drinking age to 25 is the expectation of bumping up the driving age.

Ranch kids in Wyoming and other rural states start driving early out of necessity.

Residents in this state didn't need to get a drivers' license until the 1930s or thereabouts.

The new brain science is unlikely to have much impact on the policy governing drivers' licenses in the state.

Contact Joan Barron by e-mail at joan.barron@trib.com or by phone at (307) 632-1244.

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