In the United States, the current accepted legal drinking age is 21. It has been that way since the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 which basically told the states that if they didn’t up their drinking age to 21, they would lose about 10% of their federal highway funding. True to American nature, nobody wanted to lose money, so all 50 states complied. While this age is consistent throughout the U.S., there is no such consistency throughout the world. Drinking ages around the world range from non-existent to never (with the most common ages listed as 16-21). Though this chart is not all-inclusive, it does lead one to believe that this decision is basically arbitrary.
And that is why drinking ages don’t make a bit of sense. They are almost entirely arbitrary.
The minimum legal drinking age (MDLA) in the United States has changed based on social norms and crusades. Franklin Roosevelt led the campaign to lower the drinking age to 18, though that wasn’t his original intention. During World War II, FDR approved the lowering of military draft age from 21 to 18. This left a lot of people scratching their heads and wondering why a young man could be called to die for his country when he couldn’t vote for his leaders or grab a cold one.
As the years went on, more young people dying in alcohol-related traffic accidents led to organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving fighting for, and eventually winning, a higher drinking age.
As far as I am concerned, that is a valid question. You see, all of these things are measures of adulthood in their own right. When is a person “old” enough to fight for their freedom and the greater good? To help decide who gets to make laws and regulations that will affect their lives? To consume alcohol?
If those questions don’t seem odd to you, take a closer look.
What do any of those questions have to do with age? Nothing.
There is no age at which every human is prepared to make any or all of those decisions. While one can argue that physiologically, a person may still be developing and not yet ready to be exposed to the effects of alcohol, that is the only true age limit. Things like mental and emotional maturity, though set in a general pattern, do not happen at the exact same ages. Ever notice how some young people have “old souls” and some adults never seem to grow up? Yeah, that means you can’t say that there is an exact age at which all people become ready to drink. (Trust me, I’ve seen some folks turn 21 and feared what would happen when they walked into a bar.)
And, as a side note, if we were basing this entirely on mental maturation, there would have to be a drinking age difference between genders because women mature faster than men. I know nobody wants that, so I won’t even suggest it.
Now, people have been arguing the drinking age for years and continue to do so today. (If you are interested in some of those arguments, I suggest you check out the websites linked here and here for more information.) Basically what it comes down to is that for every single argument, there is an equal and opposite statement claiming it is inaccurate. So, where does that leave us? Should we keep trying to find the sweet spot of drinking ages? Should we develop and IQ/EQ test to determine if a person is ready to consume alcohol? Should there be a trial phase in which people can have a drinking learners permit where they only drink under supervision? Should we just give up and hope for the best?
I’ll be honest and say I don’t have the answer to that one, and I don’t expect to have it any time soon. What I do know is that a drinking age means almost nothing for two main reasons: not everybody matures in the same way, and some people selectively obey laws anyway. I know it’s hard to believe, but stamping a “21” on a law doesn’t mean that everybody will wait until that day.
At present, I believe that drinking is a matter of individual responsibility that the law can help mandate, but not with an age limit. Instead, we must find a better way to know who is truly “of age” to drink.
P.S. Don’t drink and drive.
P.P.S. There is no age at which to be blackout drunk. It is never fun and it is never cool, so be smart and don’t embarrass yourself or your family and friends.
P.P.P.S. Enjoy responsibly.