Young people today come of age in a cultural and economic milieu that prolongs their
attainment of the traditional markers of adulthood. Their subjective conceptions of the
transition to adulthood also depart radically from the traditional conception, with its emphasis
on discrete transition events (including marriage and entry into the workforce). Instead, the
modern transition to adulthood is a gradual process comprising the acquisition of general
capabilities, rather than the achievement of externally constructed events. The state-established
age of legal majority stands in marked contrast to this gradual and prolonged process. Not
only does it categorically establish the inception of adult status, but states in the mid-twentieth
century adopted laws lowering statewide ages of majority from twenty-one to eighteen.
Setting legal adulthood at eighteen fails to accord with the trajectory of individual
development, the time needed to acquire the skills and education demanded of individuals in
the modern labor market, and even the social experiences of young people coming of age in
modern America. In other words, the legal construction of adulthood is starkly at odds with its
social and cultural constructions.
Moreover, we now understand that young people reliably attain different capacities at
distinct stages of development. Thus across a range of policymaking contexts, any categorical
rule will fail to take account either of context-specific capacities or deficiencies. The core
commitments of the liberal democratic state, however, require it to extend to individuals those
rights which they have attained the capacity to exercise—in other words, to recognize and
account for context-specific capacities.
An ever-growing number of exceptions to the age of majority confirms its diminishing
utility as a presumptive marker of adult capacity. Abandoning altogether the presumptive age
of legal majority in favor of context-specific rules advances the state’s liberal ends and better
aligns the legal and socio-cultural constructions of adulthood. The developmental and
behavioral sciences can and should supplement more traditional policymaking considerations.
Finally, existing law, already rife with exceptions to the age of majority, demonstrates that
context-specific decision making imposes no undue burden on lawmakers.

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