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Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility
ences that are morally suspect, but legally tolerated in adults. In fact, laws on the protection of children are often the signal of a residual cultural disapproval of behaviors that were at some time not only immoral, but illegal for everyone.
There is also a generalized concern about joining the adult world “too early.” Holding a full-time job is not morally suspect and does not necessarily injure a child’s future status, but our cultural and legal systems forbid this level of employment below a given age. Where exceptions must be made, as for child actors, the U.S. system imposes elaborate legal restrictions and requirements in an attempt to ensure the actors have a “proper childhood.”
The proliferation of legal restrictions on behavior by chronological age is a relatively modern phenomenon. Age minimums for drinking, for example, mostly date back only to the post-Repeal era (Mosher, 1980). Differentiations of status in terms of life stages have a much longer and broader history. But the modern legal restrictions both express and encourage a cultural tendency to think of these status differentiations in a particular way: in terms of chronological age. In a strongly universalistic cultural and legal frame, a fixed chronological age applying to everyone is a legal definition of adulthood that is more comfortable and more easily defended than any criterion based on an individualized assessment of maturity or on a civil status (e.g., marriage) would be. Of course, a more universalistic standard for behaviors seen as inappropriate for children is to forbid them for everyone. Minimum age restrictions cannot exist, of course, for behaviors that also are illegal for adults, such as marijuana use.
Emancipation and Settling Down: The “Social Clock”
Part of growing up is to try out and to adopt new behaviors. Although the process is often fraught with anxiety for the person growing up, it is often even more anxiety producing for parents and other adults involved. This anxiety or disapproval may arise if the adolescent tries out the behavior at all. But often it is also about the age at which the behavior is adopted. Behavior that is seen as too “grown up” for one age may be accepted without too much fuss if it occurs at a later age.
In the context of discussions of social problems and youth, the focus tends to be on behaviors that are taken on “too young.” But in a wider frame, there is also growing unease if a young person does not try out and take on a behavior at what is believed to be an appropriate age. Failing to have a full-time job by the age of 25 may be seen as equally inappropriate as holding a full-time job at age 12. Sociologists talk of these normative standards for when a behavior or status should be taken on as the “social clock” (Neugarten, Moore, and Lowe, 1965). The normative standards for