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Abby Sunderland and beyond: It's not the age, it's the immaturity

By Alexandra Petri

Suggested age limitations are cropping up everywhere, making the world feel like a giant theme park. “You must be this old to sail around the world solo.” “You must be this old to even think of emulating Beyonce’s Single Ladies video.

I would be the first to admit the folly of youth. Well, actually, Lindsay Lohan should be the first, but I would be right behind her. Deluded by the fact that we are still in possession of most of our faculties, we like to skydive and attempt to circumnavigate the world solo while wearing skinny jeans.

The Founding Fathers seemed to think that there was a certain benefit in aging. They set the minimum ages for representatives, senators and the president at 25, 30 and 35, respectively. In those days, this was really saying something, since people in that era had a tendency to wander off and die of scurvy if left unattended. The Senate was to be a wiser, more moderate body that would temper the hot-headed young congressmen; the president, wiser still.

But the profusion of age limits notwithstanding, the equation seems increasingly less clear-cut. As we live longer and longer, our culture grows more and more focused on youth. To the point that mental age seems to be only tangentially linked to the number of years anyone has spent on earth.

Witness phenomena such as “Moms for Bieber” and the WEtv series “Sunset Daze,” which follows the hilarious (and, at times, sophomoric) hi-jinks of a group of retirees. The older we get, the younger some of us act.

Some 16 year-olds can, indeed, competently navigate the globe. Some fifty year-olds look all right in skinny jeans. But for the majority who fall somewhere in the middle, guidelines traditionally exist. You must be thirteen to see "Avatar," sixteen to drive, seventeen to watch R-rated movies without parental supervision, eighteen to vote, twenty-one to drink and vote. We are frequently informed that these age guidelines reflect the development of the brain, giving our brains’ decision-making faculties the chance to form as fully as they can before we douse them with tequila. But if we are to follow this logic, perhaps we should take away as well as give. No one over forty should be permitted to use abbreviations while texting. No one older than fifty should be allowed to care what Heidi Montag is doing with her life. No one over sixty should attempt to “ice” his “bros.”

“I am not young enough to know everything,” Oscar Wilde once remarked. As the ages blur together, there is less and less a clear-cut answer to who is old enough to do what. There are some things you don’t think need an age limit, and then someone goes out and tries to win the Guinness World Record for “Youngest Toddler to Attempt Open-Heart Surgery” or “Youngest Toddler to Perform Open-Heart Surgery Successfully.” Like certain office policies that clearly resulted from one disastrous incident -- “the copier is not to be used as a tanning bed” -- new suggested cut-offs emerge after every news story. Abby Sunderland should have waited two years to sail! Helen Thomas should have retired two years ago!

Yet in all these cases, from the Landon boys to Bob Etheridge, the question is not one of age but of maturity. This quality is often measured best not by what people choose to do but by what they choose to refrain from doing. Sure, everyone wants to be young, but someone has to be the adult.

By Alexandra Petri  | June 15, 2010; 11:05 AM ET
Categories:  Petri  | Tags:  Alexandra Petri  
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