Biologically, an adult is a human or other organism that has reached
sexual maturity. In human context, the term adult additionally has
meanings associated with social and legal concepts. In contrast to a
"minor", a legal adult is a person who has attained the age of
majority and is therefore regarded as independent, self-sufficient,
and responsible. The typical age of attaining adulthood is 18,
although definition may vary by legal rights and country.
Human adulthood encompasses psychological adult development.
Definitions of adulthood are often inconsistent and contradictory; a
person may be biologically an adult, and have adult behavior but still
be treated as a child if they are under the legal age of majority.
Conversely, one may legally be an adult but possess none of the
maturity and responsibility that may define an adult character.
In different cultures there are events that relate passing from being
a child to becoming an adult or coming of age. This often encompasses
the passing a series of tests to demonstrate that a person is prepared
for adulthood, or reaching a specified age, sometimes in conjunction
with demonstrating preparation. Most modern societies determine legal
adulthood based on reaching a legally specified age without requiring
a demonstration of physical maturity or preparation for adulthood.
1 Biological adulthood
Social construction of adulthood
5 See also
A group of adult people
Historically and cross-culturally, adulthood has been determined
primarily by the start of puberty (the appearance of secondary sex
characteristics such as menstruation in women, ejaculation in men, and
pubic hair in both sexes). In the past, a person usually moved from
the status of child directly to the status of adult, often with this
shift being marked by some type of coming-of-age test or ceremony.
After the social construct of adolescence was created, adulthood split
into two forms: biological adulthood and social adulthood. Thus, there
are now two primary forms of adults: biological adults (people who
have attained reproductive ability, are fertile, or who evidence
secondary sex characteristics) and social adults (people who are
recognized by their culture or law as being adults). Depending on the
context, adult can indicate either definition.
Although few or no established dictionaries provide a definition for
the two word term biological adult, the first definition of adult in
multiple dictionaries includes "the stage of the life cycle of an
animal after reproductive capacity has been attained". Thus, the
base definition of the word adult is the period beginning at physical
sexual maturity, which occurs sometime after the onset of puberty.
Although this is the primary definition of the base word "adult", the
term is also frequently used to refer to social adults. The two-word
term biological adult stresses or clarifies that the original
definition, based on physical maturity, is being used.
The time of puberty varies, but usually begins around 10 or 11 years
old. Girls typically begin the process of puberty at age 10 or 11, and
boys at age 11 or 12. Girls generally complete puberty by
15–17, and boys by age 16 or 17. Nutrition, genetics and
environment also play a part.
Main article: Age of majority
Legally, adulthood typically means that one has reached the age of
majority - when parents lose parenting rights and responsibilities
regarding the person concerned. Depending on one's jurisdiction, the
age of majority may or may not be set independently of and should not
be confused with the minimum ages applicable to other activities, such
as engaging in a contract, marriage, voting, having a job, serving in
the military, buying/possessing firearms, driving, traveling abroad,
involvement with alcoholic beverages, smoking, sexual activity,
gambling, being a model or actor in pornography, running for
President, etc. Admission of a young person to a place may be
restricted because of danger for that person, concern that the place
may lead the person to immoral behavior or because of the risk that
the young person causes damage (for example, at an exhibition of
One can distinguish the legality of acts of a young person, or of
enabling a young person to carry out that act, by selling, renting
out, showing, permitting entrance, allowing participation, etc. There
may be distinction between commercially and socially enabling.
Sometimes there is the requirement of supervision by a legal guardian,
or just by an adult. Sometimes there is no requirement, but rather a
Using the example of pornography, one can distinguish between:
being allowed inside an adult establishment
being allowed to purchase pornography
being allowed to possess pornography
another person being allowed to sell, rent out, or show the young
person pornography, see disseminating pornography to a minor
being a pornographic actor: rules for the young person, and for other
people, regarding production, possession, etc. (see child pornography)
With regard to films with violence, etc.:
another person being allowed to sell, rent out, or show the young
person a film; a cinema being allowed to let a young person enter
The age of majority ranges internationally from ages 15 to 21, with 18
being the most common age. Niger, Mali, Democratic Republic of Congo
Cameroon define adulthood at age 15, but marriage of girls at an
earlier age is common.
In most of the world, including most of the United States, parts of
United Kingdom (England, Northern Ireland, Wales),
China, the legal adult age is 18 (historically 21) for most purposes,
with some notable exceptions:
Scotland (United Kingdom) (16)
British Columbia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Northwest
Territories, Nova Scotia, Nunavut,
Yukon Territory in
there are some exceptions in which Canadians may be considered legal
adults in certain situations);
Nebraska and Alabama
in The United States, and
South Korea (19)
United States purchasing alcohol and entering bars has a minimum age
Since June 17, 2017, the legal adult age in
Japan was changed from 20
Social construction of adulthood
In contrast to biological perspectives of aging and adulthood, social
scientists conceptualize adulthood as socially constructed.
While aging is an established biological process, the attainment of
adulthood is social in its criteria. In contrast to other perspectives
that conceptualize aging and the attainment of adulthood as a largely
universal development, regardless of context, nation, generation,
gender, race, or social class, social scientists regard these aspects
as paramount in cultural definitions of adulthood.
Further evidence of adulthood as a social construction is illustrated
by the changing criteria of adulthood over time. Historically,
adulthood in the U.S. has rested on completing one’s education,
moving away from the family of origin, and beginning one’s
career. Other key historical criteria include entering a
marriage and becoming a parent. These criteria are social and
subjective; they are organized by gender, race, ethnicity, social
class, among other key identity markers. As a result, particular
populations feel adult earlier in the life course than do
Contemporary experiences of and research on young adults today
substitute more seemingly subjective criteria for adulthood which
resonate more soundly with young adults' experiences of aging.
The criteria are marked by a growing "importance of individualistic
criteria and the irrelevance of the demographic markers" of normative
conceptions of adulthood.":230 In particular, younger cohorts'
attainment of adulthood centers on three criteria: gaining a sense of
responsibility, independent decision-making, and financial
Jewish tradition, adulthood is reached at age 13 (the
minimal age of the
Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah) for
Jewish boys and
girls; they are expected to demonstrate preparation for adulthood by
Torah and other
Jewish practices. The
Jewish scripture contain no age requirement for adulthood or marrying,
which includes engaging in sexual activity. The 1983 Code of Canon Law
states, "A man before he has completed his sixteenth year of age, and
likewise a woman before she has completed her fourteenth year of age,
cannot enter a valid marriage". According to The Disappearance of
Childhood by Neil Postman, the
Christian Church of the Middle Ages
considered the age of accountability, when a person could be tried and
even executed as an adult, to be age 7.
Adult contemporary music
Adult-to-adult narcissistic abuse
Age of candidacy
Age of consent
Legal drinking age
Motion picture rating system
^ Maranz Henig, Robin (2010-08-18). "What Is It About 20-Somethings?".
New York Times. p. 10. Retrieved 2010-09-24. THE DISCOVERY OF
adolescence is generally dated to 1904, with the publication of the
massive study "Adolescence," by G. Stanley Hall, a prominent
psychologist and first president of the American Psychological
^ International Dictionary of Medicine and
^ Churchill's Medical Dictionary (1989)
^ Kail, RV; Cavanaugh JC (2010).
Human Development: A Lifespan View
(5th ed.). Cengage Learning. p. 296. ISBN 0495600377.
^ Schuiling (2016). Women’s Gynecologic Health. Jones & Bartlett
Learning. p. 22. ISBN 1284125017. Retrieved March 20, 2018.
The changes that occur during puberty usually happen in an ordered
sequence, beginning with thelarche (breast development) at around age
10 or 11, followed by adrenarche (growth of pubic hair due to androgen
stimulation), peak height velocity, and finally menarche (the onset of
menses), which usually occurs around age 12 or 13.
^ a b D. C. Phillips (2014). Encyclopedia of Educational Theory and
Philosophy. Sage Publications. pp. 18–19. ISBN 1483364755.
Retrieved March 20, 2018. On average, the onset of puberty is about 18
months earlier for girls (usually starting around the age of 10 or 11
and lasting until they are 15 to 17) than for boys (who usually begin
puberty at about the age of 11 to 12 and complete it by the age of 16
to 17, on average).
^ Jean W. Solomon, Jane Clifford O'Brien (2014). Pediatric Skills for
Occupational Therapy Assistants - E-Book. Elsevier Health Sciences.
p. 103. ISBN 0323291635. Retrieved March 20, 2018. CS1
maint: Uses authors parameter (link)
^ Spooner, Samatha (July 14, 2014). "
Legal ages of marriage across
Africa: Even when it's 18, they are married off at 12!". Mail &
^ Elder, Glen H., Jr. 1985. “Perspectives on the life course.” Pp.
23-49 in Life Course Dynamics: Trajectories and Transitions, 1968 –
1980, ed. Glen H. Elder, Jr. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
^ Settersten, Richard A. 1999. Lives in Time and Place: The Problems
and Promises of Developmental Science. Amityville, NY: Baywood
^ Ryff, Carol D. 1985. “The Subjective Experience of Life-Span
Transitions.” In Gender and the life course, by Alice S. Rossi,
97-113. New York: Adine.
^ Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen. 1998. “Learning to Stand Alone: The
Contemporary American Transition to Adulthood in Cultural and
Human Development 41:295-315.
^ Levinson, Daniel J. 1978. The Seasons of a Man’s Life. New York:
^ Shanahan, Michael J. 2000. “Pathways to Adulthood in Changing
Societies: Variability and Mechanisms in Life Course Perspective.”
Annual Review of Sociology 26:667-692.
^ Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen. 2001. “Conceptions of the Transition to
Adulthood among Emerging Adults in American Ethnic Groups.” Journal
Adult Development, 8:133-143.
^ a b Aronson, Pamela. 2008. “The Markers and Meanings of Growing
Up: Contemporary Young Women’s Transition from
Adulthood.” Gender & Society 22:56–82.
^ Barrett, Anne. 2003. “Socioeconomic Status and Age Identity: The
Role of Dimensions of Health in the Subjective Construction of Age
Identity.” Journal of Gerontology 58: 101-110.
^ Barrett, Anne. 2005. “Gendered Experiences in Midlife:
Implications for Age Identity.” Journal of Aging Studies 19:163-183.
^ Furstenberg, Frank F., Jr., Rubén G. Rumbaut, and Richard A.
Settersten, Jr. 2005. “On the Frontier of Adulthood: Emerging Themes
and New Directions.” In On the frontier of adulthood: Theory,
Research, and Public Policy, by Richard A. Settersten, Jr., Frank F.
Furstenburg Jr., and Rubén G. Rumbaut, 3-25. Chicago, IL: University
of Chicago Press.
^ Shanahan, Michael J., Erik J. Porfeli, Jeylan T. Mortimer, and Lance
D. Erickson. 2005. “Subjective Age Identity and the Transition to
Adulthood: When do Adolescents Become Adults?” In On the Frontier of
Adulthood: Theory, Research, and Public Policy, by Richard A.
Settersten, Jr., Frank F. Furstenburg Jr., and Rubén G. Rumbaut,
225-255. Chicago: University of Chicago.
^ Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen. 2004. Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road
from Late Teens through the Twenties. New York, NY: Oxford University
^ Settersten, Richard A. 2011. “Becoming Adult: Meanings and Markers
for Young Americans.” In Coming of Age in America: The Transition to
Adulthood in the Twenty-First Century, by Mary C. Waters, Patrick J.
Carr, Maria J. Kefalas, and Jennifer Holdaway, 169-190. Berkeley:
University of California Press.
^ canon 1083, §1
Human biological and psychological development
Age of majority
Events and phases
Cognitive development of infants
Positive youth development
Positive adult development
Freud (1856–1939) (Psychosexual development)
Piaget (1896–1980) (Theory of cognitive development)
Vygotsky (1896–1934) (Cultural-historical psychology)
Erikson (1902–1994) (Psychosocial development)
Bowlby (1907–1990) (Attachment theory)
Bronfenbrenner (1917–2005) (Ecological systems theory)
Kohlberg (1927–1987) (Stages of moral development)
Commons (b. 1939), Fischer (b. 1943), Kegan (b. 1946),
Demetriou (b. 1950), and others (Neo-Piagetian theories of
Evolutionary developmental psychology
Applied behavior analysis
Industrial and organizational
Sport and exercise
Human subject research
William James (1842–1910)
Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936)
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939)
Edward Thorndike (1874–1949)
Carl Jung (1875–1961)
John B. Watson (1878–1958)
Clark L. Hull (1884–1952)
Kurt Lewin (1890–1947)
Jean Piaget (1896–1980)
Gordon Allport (1897–1967)
J. P. Guilford (1897–1987)
Carl Rogers (1902–1987)
Erik Erikson (1902–1994)
B. F. Skinner (1904–1990)
Donald O. Hebb (1904–1985)
Ernest Hilgard (1904–2001)
Harry Harlow (1905–1981)
Raymond Cattell (1905–1998)
Abraham Maslow (1908–1970)
Neal E. Miller (1909–2002)
Jerome Bruner (1915–2016)
Donald T. Campbell (1916–1996)
Hans Eysenck (1916–1997)
Herbert A. Simon (1916–2001)
David McClelland (1917–1998)
Leon Festinger (1919–1989)
George Armitage Miller (1920–2012)
Richard Lazarus (1922–2002)
Stanley Schachter (1922–1997)
Robert Zajonc (1923–2008)
Albert Bandura (b. 1925)
Roger Brown (1925–1997)
Endel Tulving (b. 1927)
Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–1987)
Noam Chomsky (b. 1928)
Ulric Neisser (1928–2012)
Jerome Kagan (b. 1929)
Walter Mischel (b. 1930)
Elliot Aronson (b. 1932)
Daniel Kahneman (b. 1934)
Paul Ekman (b. 1934)
Michael Posner (b. 1936)
Amos Tversky (1937–1996)
Bruce McEwen (b. 1938)
Larry Squire (b. 1941)
Richard E. Nisbett (b. 1941)
Martin Seligman (b. 1942)
Ed Diener (b. 1946)
Shelley E. Taylor (b. 1946)
John Anderson (b. 1947)
Ronald C. Kessler (b. 1947)
Joseph E. LeDoux (b. 1949)
Richard Davidson (b. 1951)
Susan Fiske (b. 1952)
Roy Baumeister (b. 1953)
Schools of thought