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Since our parents were kids, there has been a longstanding debate over the drinking age. It has fueled disagreement between those who just want to have a beer and those who think alcohol is the devil’s drink to the point that the drinking age was eventually tied to federal highway funding as a way to force states into compliance with the controversial choice of 21. Thirty years later, I think it has proven to be a disastrous choice, and not just for the reason that it makes going out and having a good time in college more difficult and a hell of a lot less legal.
As my dad tells it, when he was a kid, 18 was the last big birthday. At that point, you could drink, be drafted, buy a house, own a gun, go to real jail, and so on. You knew that the second the clock hit midnight on the day you were born, you were basically no longer a kid. Pushing the drinking age back to 21 started the process of blurring those lines. It said to everyone, “You can fight and die for your country, but you’re not mature enough to have a drink.” It was an interesting conclusion that the officials in charge of making laws at various levels of government came to. It was a bold move then, and so far, it has played out with the U.S. having one of the highest binge drinking death rates. How’s that working out for us? So, at age 18, you are legally responsible enough to handle everything adulthood has to throw at you, including potentially taking someone’s life or losing your own in combat, but you aren’t capable of having a beer without people in every major statehouse in the country blowing a collective gasket because somewhere a teenager is having a drink? I’m a bit skeptical. The amount of hand-wringing people do over the drinking age is ridiculous, and it all stems from the fact that a sizable chunk of parents are incapable of letting their kids grow up and make their own mistakes. In my (rather painful, on occasion) experience, that’s the best way to learn. For example, after a night of going entirely too hard, you’ll learn very quickly that throwing up from 1 a.m. until sunrise is not the best way to entertain the girl you brought home, especially if she feels the need to sit there and massage your back while you puke up a week’s worth of food.
As a result of this, I think it had a legitimate impact on the next couple generations. It made that gap between 18 and 21 into some kind of adulthood twilight zone, where you aren’t actually fully an adult but you also definitely aren’t a kid anymore. It’s a strange, society-imposed, developmental limbo, all because groups like MADD won out with their “Won’t someone think of the children?” bullshit. The arguments against allowing people to drink at 18 tend to fall along the “teenagers aren’t fully developed” lines, which is essentially a nice, vaguely scientific way to say that the people interested in babying us from cradle to grave think we should put off that first beer as long as possible, even if it means forcing college-aged kids to do things like acquire fake IDs and risk altercations with the police that they would never face if they weren’t backed into a corner by the law. We’ve had a ton of personal responsibility stripped from us all because a bunch of moralistic assholes decided that people can’t handle alcohol until after cracking their twenties.
Looking at any other western nation, we’re clearly on the wrong page. We binge harder than any developed country on the planet, even edging out the Brits and Germans for that honor. I’m all for a night of getting destroyed when the occasion calls for it, but we probably should get our collective shit together. It doesn’t help that a lot of people tend to think of 21 as the time when they have to actually learn how to drink like an adult, rather than doing that in the lead-up. If people did that, we wouldn’t have an epidemic of people throwing up all over the bar, though I admit that vomit does give certain college bars character that many people would probably miss. Nothing smells more like bad decisions than stale beer, liquor, and vomit. It’s the cologne of the average college watering hole.
So what do we do? Great question. I don’t actually have a good answer. My personal take would be to simply drop the drinking age to 18 for liquor and 16 for beer, like every sensible country in the world. Another argument is to raise the age that you’re considered an adult to 21, but that strikes me as really, really stupid. We already have enough issues as a generation with people accusing us of being developmentally arrested. Let’s not add fuel to their fire. The compromises I’ve seen would either be 18 for beer and 21 for liquor or only lowering the age for military personnel. I think anything but undoing the damage the Dudley Drink rights in the ’80s did would be the only logical solution, but these people are still in the government in a lot of cases. I can’t imagine 30 years added on top of the damage they did to themselves with coke and quaaludes has helped improve their logical reasoning skills.
The drinking age has already done enough damage to the coming-of-age time we’re supposed to have by blurring the lines of where real adulthood begins. Let’s fix it before we fuck another generation over with it. After all, everyone seems so fixated on personal responsibility in the last few years–so why don’t they trust us with a little bit more and stop holding our hand through the first few years as an adult?