Universities and gap year organisations that facilitate young people travelling, or volunteering, overseas have observed a decline in young adult’s capabilities, independence and resilience in recent years. The question often comes to us to explain why this is occurring and how organisations should respond.
The age of majority is when a person is determined to be an adult according to the law. It is assumed that, at this point, the person assumes legal control over themselves, their actions and decisions. It is the legal recognition of adulthood and, in law, it is when a person can be tried as an ‘adult’. In most countries the age of majority is 18. There are a few countries where it is 15 and others where it is 21 but most hover at 18. This shouldn’t be confused with other ‘ages’ – such as the age of sexual consent, drinking age and voting age. These can all be different to the age of majority.
There is plenty of discussion at the moment by researchers in the media as to whether this legal age is appropriate. More information and research are being produced which suggests that brain maturity extends well beyond the teenage years (13-19). Research shows that young people’s decision-making and brain maturity doesn’t conclude until between 23 and 25 years old. This would be no problem if brain maturity (specifically in the pre-frontal cortex) weren’t so important to controlling impulses and risk behaviour. Sandra Aamodt, the author of Welcome to Your Child’s Brain, argues that young adults are, “more interested in entering uncertain situations.” Or, in common parlance – increased risk taking. She also states that rental car companies are ahead of the game in recognising this and won’t rent cars, or rent cars and substantially increased rates, to those under 25. Another psychologist says that the evidence for this in the statistics and that, at the age of 18, most of accidents caused by young drivers are down to bad judgement and decision making.
This period then, from 18-25, has been dubbed, ‘kidulthood’ by child psychologists. In the UK, child psychologists have even been given a new directive that the age range they work with is being extended from 0-18 to 0-25. Those in the ‘kidult’ years are also putting off traditionally adult responsibilities like marriage, careers and parenthood. According to psychologist, Beatriz Luna, this encourages teenagers to prolong adolescence and becomes one with increased risks as 18-25 year olds have the freedom of adulthood but lack the brain maturity to fully manage it.
For the universities and gap year organisations who work with students travelling and volunteering on a gap year, or with undergraduates this puts them in a difficult situation. Legally, they are working with adults – people who have reached the age of majority. These students are often on their own for the first time and expect certain rights and responsibilities. They also take increased risks without regard for the outcome and lack respect for the parameters of authority which an organisation might have toward them. In general, this is coupled with high levels of mental health issues (such as anxiety, eating disorders and self-harm), increased lack resilience and inability to overcome difficult situations. Organisations have also mentioned that there is a growing expectation that an individual’s issues will be accommodated even at the expense of the rest of a group.
While we’re likely still years away from the age of majority being changed in law there are real, practical implications for team, and fieldwork, leaders who work with 18-25 year olds right now. What can organisations do to ensure that they are working well with people in this age range?
In our experience, we have seen five practical examples of actions universities can take that have enabled successful trips with 18-25 year olds:
An organisation may consider increasing the availability of resources for fieldwork and team leaders to engage with the variety of issues they face. This can be providing a counselling hotline that students can access on their travels should they face mental health issues. This prevents team leaders from having to act as counsellors which they might be neither able, nor willing, to do.
Have red lines and stick to them:
If 18-25 year olds are adults then treat them as such…but with clearer and more serious communication on the repercussions of negative actions than might otherwise be given to older adults. Team leaders will want to ensure they have organisation or departmental support but if the groups has been told that certain actions or behaviours will get them sent home then this needs to be acted on will should those actions or behaviours manifest.
Prepare team leaders:
Anyone in leadership should be well briefed on how 18-25 year olds might act and the different issues with which they might be dealing. If leaders are not well informed they’ll simply become frustrated by the number of issues they’re confronted with, the levels of immaturity and unexpected risk taking. Helping them to understand what they might face could mean the difference between retaining staff and having to find new leaders year after year.
Understand local laws:
Many young adults have never thought about the laws in their own country much less those in the country they’re visiting. They could assume that because they’re British the laws at home will apply to them abroad. Or, that what is legal in Britain will be legal in Thailand. This is not the case and they usually need to be told this to avoid run-ins with the law abroad.
By the time people have become leaders of groups, or organisations, a lot of life experience informs their actions and it’s easy to forget that young people don’t know what they don’t know. Things like: they need a passport to go to another country. Or, that flip flops are inappropriate footwear on an archaeology dig. Or, that sunburn and sunstroke can result in death. With young people it’s important to convey more information or information that might seem like ‘common sense’.