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March 18, 2013 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

21: What’s the Key

It’s hard to say why turning 21 is a big deal. By almost every measure there isn’t much about that age that feels all that significant. You’ve been more or less technically an adult for three years—you can drink, you can smoke, you can vote, and you can drive.You can get married and sign contracts and you’ve been legally in charge of your own affairs for a while.

In legal terms, the age of majority in New Zealand sets adulthood at 20 in spite of this, which is comical considering all the essential rights given to adults have been handed over to 18- year olds. Turning 21 does not open up a magical cache of new adult delights to gorge yourself on, yet 21sts are a big deal for some—often celebrated in a more lavish way than any other comparable milestone. That said, it clearly isn’t universal. Opting out of celebrating what is really a ridiculously arbitrary date isn’t the huge deal that similar behaviour in another country might be.

Perhaps this comes from the fact that nobody is really sure where 21sts come from, so if you choose not mark yours flamboyantly it isn’t clear what you’re missing out on. It used to be the drinking age, of course. 50 years ago, in 1963, the drinking age was 21. If being able to drink legally is our sole cultural marker for adulthood, then maybe we’re doing something wrong. Asking whether or not 21sts are the right time to celebrate adulthood might be a dumb question, because it’s not clear whether or not it ever was. Increasingly, it seems like in many ways it can’t possibly be. The average age at which mothers have their first child, while still lower than most countries in the OECD, has crept steadily upwards in the last 60 years or so. It is now certainly the object of some consternation when a person in their early 20s ends up pregnant.

The significance of the 21st birthday is not without some precedent—it’s just that most of them are ancient and it’s difficult to imagine that they have any bearing on the way we think of age today. In the Middle ages it was around 20 to 21, for instance, that young men were usually knighted if they’d completed their training on time. So there’s that.

People in their early 20s have, in recent years, occupied a nauseating new space all of their own. Increasingly fetal in nature, our early twenties have  become a time for many to saddle themselves with debt and ‘explore their options’, which invariably for most people means a protracted period of self-doubt and anxiety. Teenagers are traditionally the age group we rag on, largely because they lead their existence as inbetweeners: it’s not totally clear what they’re there for other than to consume things.

The teenager as a group with their own culture separate from both children and adults is an idea that is quite recent. Never before has history given us a large group of the population who produce almost nothing as they prepare themselves for adulthood. In many ways, that description now seems fit for the decade that comes after it, too. A ‘quarter-life crisis’ is a term that has now entered the lexicon, apparently, with an accompanying avalanche of media seeking to cash in on young people who don’t feel like they’ve grown up yet. The world isn’t helping things: barely a week passes without a story somewhere gravely telling us that young people have limited opportunities and that the only reason they exist is to look after their ageing baby-boomer  parents.

What, then, is the 21st actually celebrating? A party of uncertainty? A melancholy fiesta? A bash for the almost grown-up? Of course, not everyone is that vile at 21. A lot of people are, though.

Our method of celebrating adulthood is shared by only a handful of other, vaguely similar countries. 21sts of a similar kind are held in Australia, most of northern Europe, including the UK, Ireland and Scandinavia, and in Ukraine and Poland. In others, like the United States, turning 21 might be cause for a celebration (especially given the drinking age is 21) but it would be unusual to mark it the same way we do.

This schism becomes easier to understand in the context of other cultural practices that celebrate coming of age: many cultures that have an age-based rite of passage put the emphasis on a much younger age in a way that is absent in New Zealand. In many Latin American countries, for instance, what is called the quinceañera (literally ‘one who is 15’) in Spanish-speaking countries is widely practiced. The North American fixation with the ‘sweet sixteen’ is well-documented. these events coincide with the most elegant parts of adolescence: when the adult in the child becomes more discernible.

It could also be that as people shed themselves of inherited cultural traditions and religious practices (which we are apparently doing at a rate unmatched anywhere else in the developed world) moments like the 21st become increasingly important without dogmatic rituals to guide us through life. While there are far too many traditional markers of maturity to list in any real depth here, there are a few that most people will either be aware of or have experienced first hand. Most people are familiar with 13-year olds having Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, for instance. Judaism guides its young through a series of important moments grounded in religious meaning into adulthood. the Bahá’í are considered spiritually mature at 15. Confirmation is an important moment for many young Christians. Islamic circumcision can be performed between birth and the age of 15 and can coincide with a coming-of-age event – betrothal, the first recitation of the Quran in its entirety, and so on. Most of these rites, and others like them, tie adulthood to a person’s capacity to fully participate in and understand religious life. In Germany, and some other parts of Europe, the need for an irreligious version of the confirmation resulted in Jugendweihe, or ‘youth consecration,’ which is essentially the same thing minus the Bible-y bits.

Perhaps the lack of specificity around 21sts is really quite a lovely thing. Consider the key that is sometimes given to the birthday girl or boy on the night of their 21st: while its origins are unclear, the general idea is that the recipient is now mature enough to come and go as they please.The concept is a nice one. What makes the twenty-first so special in comparison to similar things practiced across the world is that it is so non-specific, which makes it all the more personal: now you have to make your own mind up about things, and we’re going to do that by giving speeches, telling stories you’d rather we wouldn’t, and getting you so fucked you can see the inside of your skull. The 21st might be a tradition that is only sort of a tradition because people
like the excuse to throw a party, but it’s a tradition nonetheless.



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  1. LawstudentJohn316 says:

    I think the key question is: why celebrate any particular milestone of life at all? After all, one birthday will follow another until there are no more left. What’s the big picture? Why is life itself significant? My own view is that there is more to life than what meets the eyes. And whether you’re 21, 41 or 61 life truly has meaning when we find what our purpose (or reason for being here) is.

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