Scientists now believe that adolescence lasts to around the age of 24, rather than 19 as had previously believed. In an opinion piece written to the science journal “The Lancet,” Dr. Susan M. Sawyer of the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne and several colleagues argue that adolescence needs to be extended to accommodate both physiological and societal changes. In the same vein, adolescence needs to be redefined to ensure laws and social services tailored to adolescents are appropriate.
Adolescence, the period between childhood and adulthood, includes both physiological development and changing social roles. It is a period of transition from child to adult, and it takes longer than it used to.
A well-known change that accompanies adolescence is the onset of puberty. Historically, most people entered puberty when they were around 14 years old. Improvements in both diet and health care have caused a precipitous drop in age over the past 150 years. For example, many girls in developed countries have their first period at the age of ten – a full four years earlier than their counterparts in the 19th century and before. Over half of the girls worldwide now have their first period by the age of 12 or 13.
Similarly, people’s bodies continue changing and developing into their 20s. Wisdom teeth, for example, often don’t grow in until their owner is 25 years old. People’s brains also continue to develop past the age of 20 and become quicker and more efficient.
Dr. Sawyer notes that while many adult privileges and rights, such as voting, start at 18, most young people don’t actually adopt adult responsibilities and roles until significantly later. In Wales and England, for example, men and women don’t embark on their first marriage until they are in their early 30s. Forty years ago, they used to wed when they were in their early or mid-20s. Similarly, young men and women in the UK don’t leave home until they are around 25 years old. Some social services in the UK have already adopted new rules to provide support for young people with special needs until the age of 24.
One critic of the study, Dr. Jan Macvarish, warns against infantilizing young people. He believes that young people respond more to society’s expectations than to their own physiology. Professor Russel Viner of the Royal College of Paediatrics & Child Health disagrees with that contention and argues that widening the definition of adolescence can help young people. He does advise that service workers and policy makers should concentrate on the strengths adolescents exhibit rather than their problems.