The age at which a person is considered an adult varies significantly in the different countries of the world. Much depends upon what constitutes being an adult. Most look to an age at which children can legally work, marry, vote, buy alcohol, be drafted, or be charged with a crime, as the adult age.
Great variance exists as to the age when one can work in different countries. When this is a factor of considering one an adult, the age can range from no laws at all, as in countries like Papua New Guinea, Yemen and Liberia.
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Other countries set minimum age requirements for child labor. The lowest exist in countries like Syria, Paraguay, or Bangladesh, where minimum age is 12. Many work in developing countries begin work prior to reaching the minimum legal age, however. Most countries set minimum age at 15-16 years old. In a few cases, the minimum age may be 14. This compares to US figures where minimum age ranges from 15-16, and generally, one must have permission from parents to work prior to being 18 and being considered an adult.
Age of marriage, which is often considered the time at which one becomes an adult in certain countries, also shows great variance. In some countries there is no minimum age. Again, most countries set the minimum at 18. There are huge exceptions to this rule.
For example, in many African countries, such as Niger, Mozambique, and Mali, over 50% of girls are married prior to turning 18. In Yemen, 64% of girls are married before 18, and in Bangladesh, 81% of girls marry before 18. These figures often coincide with child labor laws that allow children to work at a young age. In these cases, many girls marry just after menarche (their first menstruation), and some marry prior to puberty. A married person, is for most intents and purposes, considered an adult.
In most countries, legal voting age is also set at 18 and defines who is an adult. A few countries espouse an earlier or later voting age. Some countries like Austria and Germany allow 16 year olds to vote in municipal elections. In Italy, however, one cannot vote to elect a senator, unless one is 25. Liechtenstein voters must wait until they are 30 to vote.
Another common litmus test for determining when one is an adult is the age at which one can purchase alcohol. The US figure of 21 is actually quite high. In some countries, alcohol can be purchased by anyone, but it is not treated with the same “rite of passage” reverence given by countries with a minimum drinking age. In the majority of countries, drinking age is 18. A few countries, including Spain, France, Austria, and Germany set drinking age at 16. Some countries allow children under the drinking age to consume alcohol but not purchase it.
Age can affect when children are considered criminally responsible, or an adult in the eyes of the law. It is perhaps not surprising that countries with low age for marriage, drinking or child labor assess criminal responsibility as early as seven. Yet, the United States also considers seven year olds as criminally responsible, and possibly able to be charged as an adult. This is rare, but not impossible. Frequently, age of criminal responsibility rests at around 7-14 years old.
A person may also be considered an adult if he or she is drafted or volunteers for military service. In most countries this age is 18, though a few countries set the age at 16 or 17.
In different countries, cultures may also determine that someone is an adult before legal ages for adulthood apply. For example coming of age ceremonies for Jewish children, bat or bar mitzvahs occur when a child is 13. As well, many families of Mexican descent have coming of age parties for their 15 year old daughters, called quinceaneras. Many local traditions consider a child an adult long before a child is legally considered an adult.