Wednesday, February 06, 2008

What Can Young People Do?

I have an op-ed in the New York Times today.

We should hasten the enfranchisement of this generation, born between 1980 and 1995, by lowering the voting age to 16.

Age thresholds are meant to bring an impartial data point to bear on insoluble moral questions: who can be legally executed, who can die in Iraq, who can operate the meat cutter at the local sub shop. But in a time when both youth and age are being extended, these dividing lines are increasingly inadequate.

Legal age requirements should never stand alone. They should be flexible and pragmatic and paired with educational and cognitive requirements for the exercise of legal maturity.

Driving laws provide the best model for combining early beginnings and mandatory education. Many states have had success with a gradual phasing in of driving rights over a year or more, starting with a learner’s permit at age 16. The most restrictive of these programs are associated with a 38 percent reduction in fatal crashes among the youngest drivers, according to a study conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Similarly, 16-year-olds who want to start voting should be able to obtain an “early voting permit” from their high schools upon passing a simple civics course similar to the citizenship test. Besides increasing voter registration, this system would reinforce the notion of voting as a privilege and duty as well as a right — without imposing any across-the-board literacy tests for those over 18.

And why stop at voting? Sixteen is a good starting point for phasing in adult rights and responsibilities, from voting to drinking to marriage. In reality, this is already when most people have their first jobs, their first drinks and their sexual initiations. The law ought to empower young people to negotiate these transitions openly, not furtively.

We know driving laws reflect reality; whoever heard of the scourge of under-age driving? On the other hand, studies have shown that three-fourths of high school seniors have drunk alcohol. Surveys show that teenagers who drink at home with their families go on to drink less than those who sneak beers with friends. Imagine 16-year-olds receiving a drinking permit upon passage of a mandatory course about alcoholism. The permit would allow a tipple only at family gatherings or school functions for two years — until you graduate or leave home.

The phasing in of credit cards at 16 could work with firm restrictions. A parental co-signer should be required until young applicants have made a year of on-time payments from their own wages. The most important requirement would be passing a mandatory financial literacy test. The applicant would define “compound interest,” correctly decipher the fine print on a credit card agreement and argue with a robotic customer service representative over a mysterious fee. Surely this graduated system would be safer than handing young people a $2,000 line of credit just as they leave home for the first time.

The more we treat teenagers as adults, the more they rise to our expectations. From a developmental and vocational point of view, the late teens are the right starting point for young people to think seriously about their futures. Government can help this process by bestowing rights along with responsibilities.

Tying adult rights to cognitive requirements could also smooth the path to dealing with a much bigger age-related social problem. Demographically, those over 85 are our fastest-growing group. By 2020, the entire nation will be about as silver-haired as Florida is today. We need to be able to test Americans of all ages, to make sure they’re still qualified to drive and to help them avoid financial scammers. From a public health point of view, the silver tsunami poses more of a threat than marauding teenagers ever did.

Anya Kamenetz, a staff writer for Fast Company, is the author of “Generation Debt.”

12 comments:

Benjamin said...

I was thrilled to read this piece in today's paper. I believe that the best way to address the concerns of our generation, from debt to broader social and political issues, is to create a voting bloc. Unfortunately, many of us cannot build a habit of voting (I was 17 on the date of the 2000 presidential election, and had to wait another 4 years before participating on the national level), and many more simply don't. The elderly, established businesses, even organized labor (despite its decline in recent decades) all exercise their votes far more thoroughly than the younger generation. What better way to expand participation than by growing our constituency?

The op-ed does raise some questions of testing for competency that seem to require further thought. For starters, it sounds great to restrict adult rights and privileges to the "competent", and it's certainly the only realistic way to move the voting age younger. But it does make me a little concerned that such testing might be misused, at the very least to set the bar much too high and disenfranchise the capable teens who grow up without the necessary education or background.

kende said...

Thank you for that fantastic op-ed. Many readers of the Times will think about these questions for the first time because you. That in itself is a tremendous accomplishment.

Anonymous said...

Anya Kamenetz’s Op-Ed piece on Wednesday February 6th is both self serving and ludicrous. She argues that the legal voting age should be lowered to 16, along with the drinking age. She also espouses the age one can be married without parental consent and the ability to have a credit card should be lowered to 16.
Interestingly, Congress voted to lower the legal voting age to 18 from 21 and raise the legal drinking age to 21 from 18. To be fair, Congress didn’t raise the legal drinking age, the Federal Government told the States if they didn’t raise the drinking age to 21 they wouldn’t be getting Federal Highway Funds. Surprise! All 50 States complied.
16-year-olds are just that, 16. They are not able to make the decisions independently that will affect them the rest of their lives. That’s why they have parents. They are just coming into their own, and need adult guidance. They need this guidance because they are not adults themselves. The reason the drinking age was raised was to save lives on the highway and at home, and it has worked. The change in age in conjunction with stricter DWI laws have reduced alcohol related accidents. If we were to lower these ages, we would just be lowering the bar. Teens would begin drinking even earlier. What Ms. Kamenetz doesn’t understand is we have already made adjustments. We lowered the voting age and raised the drinking age. She wants 16 year olds to be able to marry at will? Her comments reflect her own misguided ideas. Just what you need, more 16-year-olds having babies. Married or not, it is not a good idea. Teenagers in general need to be protected from themselves. They need to explore their upcoming adulthood but not in a way that gives them full rights and privileges. This would not only endanger themselves, but others as well.
You know, 50 years ago when children aged 16 took on great responsibilities on the farms and in the cities of America her ideas might have made a little more sense. Now however, they are ridiculous.
Clearly her opinion represents someone who has not entered the perils and travails of parenthood. Sorry Anya, a cat doesn’t count.

lexi said...

This is a wonderful article. It's too bad all people don't agree with you.

Alexandra said...

Anya: I read this article in the New York Times. I hope you know how happy you've made many people. I will keep up with your work in the future; it's hard to fine somebody who looks at the facts and speaks the truth.

Previous anonymous poster: Sixteen-year-olds are not "just" sixteen any more than you are "just" your age. However, they are affected by our infantilizing culture. I'm sure your young great-great (etc) grandmothers would have been insulted to know their descendent would think they were merely children. Our society has created adolescence, and it hasn't always been this way. To further that statement, it SHOULD NOT be this way. This is not progress.

Nor is it acceptable to say Anya's opinions are negated by her supposed lack of motherhood. (I have no idea if Anya has children.) The fact that most parents of teens are so incapable of remembering their own past that they need books just to understand the people they live with shows that parenthood generally fosters ignorance about youth rather than knowledge. To raise somebody is not to know or understand them.

Also, teen pregnancy has been lower in the past few years than it ever was in the past. It was much higher in, say, the fifties; people married earlier. Aside from the fact that some people did not want to marry early or be so sexually constrained - which led to the wild 60s/70s - I haven't noticed that generation as having been victimized by immaturity in marriage.

In other words, Anya is not self-serving; she herself is not a minor, and therefore she cannot be serving anything that she has a stake in by writing this article. You, on the other hand, are serving your preconcieved notions and sanctimonious opinions that don't seem to be grounded in anything crazy like, say, logic.

Anonymous said...

#1) 16 year olds are not adults. Hormonal changes in there bodies affect the way they mnake decisions. Society did not vreate this, nature did.

#2) As to being sexually constrained: That is a good idea for sixteen year olds. The reason there are less pregnant teens is due to our society telling teenagers it is not OK to have have a baby as a single parent with no means of support, no education and no money. It seems you think that is a good idea. Maybe you should look at the divorce rate for parents under 20.

3) As to Motherhood: If you want to talk the talk you've got to walk the walk. If you have no children it is impossible to understand preparing a child for adulthood no matter what your opinion or how much research you conduct.

4) It is self serving to Anya because this is one of the ways she makes her living.

5) Look, it's been said that "you could drive your car with your feet, but that doesn't make it a good idea." Just because it can be done doesn't mean it should be. Her ideas, and I guess yours, fall into that category.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the idea that teenagers should be given responsibilities individually based on their own maturity. Take voting, for example. I'm 16 years old and fell that I am knowledgeable enough about politics in general to make a good decision in an election. I'm also very disappointed that I won't be able to vote in the upcoming 2008 election, as it will probably be the most important one I witness in my lifetime. Obtaining an "early voting permit" upon passing a test sounds like a very good idea. And the same thing goes for things like drinking and driving (not together, of course). I won't lie; every once in a while me and some friends will have a few beers together (who didn't when they were my age?), but we never overdo it and never get in a vehicle with anyone who's been drinking, no matter how little they may have had. I feel like being able to receive a "drinking permit" after taking a course about alcoholism would be a good idea (although there would inevitably be some idiot who abuses the privilege and ruins it for the rest of us). All in all I think many teenagers would be able to handle these sorts of responsibilities, if only someone would give us the chance.

Anonymous said...

I suppose I will join in the fray against the other anonymous poster who takes a dim view towards (contemporary?) people under 16.

#1) 16 year olds are not adults. Hormonal changes in there [sic] bodies affect the way they mnake [sic] decisions. Society did not vreate [sic] this, nature did.

Then you support the revocation of driving, voting, and similar privileges from pregnant women, who are alleged to possess a similar psychological handicap?

Also, in your first post you say, "50 years ago when children aged 16 took on great responsibilities on the farms and in the cities of America..." If 16-year-olds are as hormonally handicapped as you claim, how could they have successfully taken on such great responsibilities?

#2) As to being sexually constrained: That is a good idea for sixteen year olds. The reason there are less pregnant teens is due to our society telling teenagers it is not OK to have have a baby as a single parent with no means of support, no education and no money. It seems you think that is a good idea. Maybe you should look at the divorce rate for parents under 20.

Where has anyone suggested that someone should, without schooling, bear children unassisted and without a sustainable income? And what would this have to do with a reduced age for legal marriage when it is not a prerequisite for childbirth?

3) As to Motherhood: If you want to talk the talk you've got to walk the walk. If you have no children it is impossible to understand preparing a child for adulthood no matter what your opinion or how much research you conduct.

So a childless child psychologist with a Ph.D. in the field and respected peer-reviewed publications has nothing worthwhile to say on the matter?

4) It is self serving to Anya because this is one of the ways she makes her living.

Are you arguing that Anya only wrote this article for the money, and that she does not actually believe in what she is writing? Were she to write an article that advocated raising the age of majority to 25, would this be self-serving as well?

5) Look, it's been said that "you could drive your car with your feet, but that doesn't make it a good idea." Just because it can be done doesn't mean it should be. Her ideas, and I guess yours, fall into that category.

I doubt the proposed ideas are for the sake of mindless change.

Alexandra said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexandra said...

As to Motherhood: If you want to talk the talk you've got to walk the walk. If you have no children it is impossible to understand preparing a child for adulthood no matter what your opinion or how much research you conduct.

This argument is even sillier considering that there are indeed parents who agree with Anya. Me, for instance. It's not your business, and it doesn't matter at all, but there you go. I would have mentioned it earlier if only I didn't wholly disagree with you on the belief that being a parent means I have some secret, special knowledge.

Oh, and we have fewer pregnant teens because of condoms and birth control - both signs of GREATER rights for young people.

(I am the poster Lexi above btw)

Anonymous said...

Thankfully, all of these ideas are in the minority in this country. Legally married at 16? Why don't we make it 12? Just because you can make a baby doesn't mean you are emotionally mature enough to raise one. You guys have zero shot at this. To be clear, 16 year olds shouldn't have a vote in running our society. Talk about silly, that idea defines it.

Alexandra said...

Sixteen-year-olds are already legally able to marry with parental consent in most states (if not all).

Sixteen-year-olds should have a vote in running any society they have to live in.