Age matters. It matters legally – in giving consent for a contract, a marriage or enlistment in the armed forces. It matters practically – for renting a car, securing favorable insurance rates, choosing a date. It certainly matters biologically – we are on the cusp of understating the age-related changes in emotion and cognition. And, I will argue in this article, it matters socially. The age of assumption of adult responsibilities, because of the interaction of physical changes with social structures, may be an important marker of inequality.
This article will examine the emergence of class-based differences in the pathways to adulthood through the lens of the new biological studies on brain maturity. Accordingly, it will begin with a section that summarizes the research results suggesting that decision-making after the mid-twenties may be qualitatively different from the decisions of those in their teens and early twenties. Second, it will link the new research on brain development to changing family practices that postpone marriage and childbearing for the middle class into the late twenties and early thirties, while concentrating childbearing, if not always marriage, in the early twenties for the rest of the population. Third, it will consider the societal support for the different family models by examining the misplaced fight over welfare reform, declining accessibility to contraception and abortion, the unequal nature of workplace support for parents, and the often hidden class subtext of debates over family values. It will end by sketching the implications for a legal research agenda attentive to the implications of age and class.