As It Happens

The definition of adolescence should include people as old as 24, researchers say

Adolescence should be defined as between the ages of 10 and 24, says the director of Centre for Adolescent Health at Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne.
An op-ed by researchers in Australia suggests the definition of adolescence be expanded to include people in their twenties. (Getty Images)

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It's time to change the definition of adolescence to include people in their early twenties, some health experts argue. 

Adolescence should be defined as between the ages of 10 and 24, according to a commentary published The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal. 

"What we are highlighting is that this is a very significant period of human development," lead author Dr. Susan Sawyer, director of the Centre for Adolescent Health at Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Currently, adolescence is classified as between the ages of 10 to 19, the researcher said.

Not only does new research suggest brain development continues into the mid-twenties, the researchers argue, but an expanded definition of adolescence would better reflect a world in which young people live at home longermarry later, and are saddled with student debt.

"I ask young people: Have you completed your education? Have you formed your life partner? Are you financially independent of your parents?" Sawyer said.

"And most young people in their early twenties that I speak to in Australia would answer no to those questions."

It's about policy 

This isn't about condescending to young people or putting them down, Sawyer said. 

She said many people in their early twenties have huge adult responsibilities and the forces that prevent them from becoming financially independent are often beyond their control.

Rather, she said, it's about crafting policy that better serves young people.

Many people in their twenties are financially unstable, says lead author Susan Sawyer.

"What does this mean in terms of the policies that we should be putting in place to maximize the acquisition of assets that young people should be gaining across the adolescent years?" she said,

"This is what this period of adolescence should be about, I believe."

She points to changes in government benefits programs, such as the continuation of support for young people who age out of state care in Australia, or U.S. policies that allow people to stay on their parents' health insurance until age 26.

'No single age'

Bu there are other cases where policies should age down instead of up, Sawyer said.

"Change happens by young people in communities being given a voice, being given authority, being given a seat at the decision-making table — and an upward extension of the age of adolescence in no way diminishes that," she said.

"In many ways, it should be supporting those activities taking place at an earlier age."

For example, she and her colleagues say the legal age of voting should be lowered to 16. 

"Voting is a very safe behaviour that it is an important activity in terms of supporting young people's understanding of how communities work," she said.

But other policies, such as the age of military service, could arguably go the other way, she said.

"What we're trying to do is to say there is no single right age at which you become an adult," she said.

"It is rather a framework to help people think about both protection of young people and empowerment of young people."


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