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Opinion: Turning 21 has become the new final frontier

By Jesse Rifkin
On February 25, 2013

The day I turned 18, I went down to Chuckie's convenience store across from my high school and bought eight lottery scratch tickets at one dollar each. I made eight dollars back, for a net profit of zero. "Good job," my father congratulated me over cake and candles later that day. "That's more than most people net off the lottery."
 And I have not played since.
 I think back to that day as I watch my fellow college juniors all turn 21 this year. People go far too crazy to celebrate that event, especially in regards to alcohol consumption. Numerous studies detail the spike in hospital visitations among those just turning 21, while data out of the University of Missouri found that "12 percent of birthday drinkers (men and women) reported consuming 21 drinks."
It wasn't always this way. The drinking age was 18 in most states, including Connecticut, prior to the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act. Turning 21 was just another birthday. Then U.S. President Ronald Reagan said that all states would receive a 10 percent decrease in federal highway funding if they did not increase their drinking age. By 1988, every state had. Blackmail! But it worked.
And so now you have films like "21 and Over," opening this Friday, in which the entire plot is two hours chronicling all the craziness the main character gets into on his 21st birthday. Before long, he is participating in activities which are illegal at any age, repeatedly coming close to jail time and/or death. That's literally the whole movie. And it's a comedy.
This all ties back to a historically recent trend in American culture: adults attempting to legislate a delay in the onset of adulthood. Many states, including this one, have increased the age at which you can be tried in adult criminal courts for a crime. In Connecticut's case, it was once 16 and now is 18. Connecticut, like many other states, has also restricted the rules on teenage driving. And the Supreme Court ruled just last year in Miller v. Alabama that imposing a life sentence for minors was unconstitutional.
The common justification that "They're only just children, they do not truly understand what they are doing." Get real. The most infamous under-18 American criminal in my lifetime has been Dylan Klebold, 17 when he shot and killed fellow classmates and teachers in Columbine High School. He knew exactly what he was doing. And it seems to me that most fresh driving-school graduates actually know the rules of the road better than their parents.
Most other countries have lower drinking ages. There is no minimum smoking age at all in most countries in Europe. Argentina, Austria, Brazil, and others seemingly have no problem letting 16-year-olds vote. Although there are exceptions, for the most part this deliberate delaying of adulthood appears to be a largely American phenomenon. Which is why the U.S. is also the only country in which "binge drinking" is a frequent occurrence among the young. When people believe they cannot regularly have alcohol (or anything else disallowed), they go overboard when access is available. Forbidden fruit is the sweetest of all.
In Judaism, the traditional rite of passage known as a Bar Mitzvah (for males) or Bat Mitzvah (or females) occurs at 13. Historically the Jewish culture recognized adolescence as the first stage of adulthood, rather than the final stage of childhood. Biological evidence points in either direction depending on the viewer's perspective. Neurologically the brain does not complete its development until around age 25. But any reasonable person would agree that adolescents have more in common with full-grown adults than with little children.
So which is it? Although the "stereotypical" college student answer, I do believe those under 21 should be treated closer to full adults in the eyes of the law, such as a return to a lower drinking age. But I also recognize that such changes will not occur anytime soon, or possibly at all, given the trajectory the other way.
I am eagerly anticipating my own upcoming 21st birthday, which is rapidly approaching in early April. But I anticipate it not because it my 21st birthday specifically, but because it is my birthday at all. The fact that I can now have my first legal drink does not make me particularly happy. The fact that I am reminded by people that care about me, who send me cards and post on my wall and give me phone calls that day, makes me happier than anything. And that feeling can occur at any age. 


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