The following blog post was produced by Lancaster University research intern Ciara Nelson based on an independent research project they carried out using focus group data from the 2018-2020 Leverhulme research project investigating how young people perceive adulthood.

Perceptions of Adulthood and its Relationship to Voting Amongst Young People Across the UK


By Ciara Nelson

Are 16 year olds “adult” enough to vote? This is the question that has become front and centre of the Votes at 16 debate an issue which has become increasingly prevalent in recent years. In 2016 Scotland lowered its voting age to 16 for its Parliamentary elections and was more recently followed by Wales in 2021. As a result, many advocates of Votes at 16 hope that Westminster will soon follow in these footsteps to provide young people with a voice on a national scale.

Yet, despite being such a widely talked about issue, it seems that one group is often left out of the discussion; that is, 16 year olds themselves. My role has been a small part of a much larger project by Thomas Loughran, Andrew Mycock and Jonathan Tonge, to focus on this underrepresented group of people and discover what young people actually think about the Votes at 16 debate. By gathering focus groups of young people across the United Kingdom from a variety of different backgrounds, they discussed their views on the relationship between voting and adulthood.

You may probably think that the majority of young people said something along the lines of “Yes, I believe 16 year olds are adult enough to vote”. However, their answers often lay beyond the typical argument of maturity, offering a different perspective which puts the Votes at 16 debate in a new light.

How do you define an adult? Views from Participants

Of course, the legal age of adulthood is 18, but the purpose of this question is to understand what makes an 18 year old, or anybody for that manner, an adult beyond just the legality. Respondents generally highlighted the complexities and subjectivity behind being an adult. For most, themes such as independence, confidence and self-sufficiency were key factors in defining adulthood. Yet, they also understood that there is more to adulthood than simply performing day-to-day responsibilities. One respondent said this, regarding what makes an individual an adult:

“There’s a difference between being mature and being an adult. I think it’s kind of an amalgamation of the two when adulthood starts”.

Many others offered answers on similar lines. Adulthood not simply just as performing ‘adult’ tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, or paying bills, but also having the maturity to understand the world around them based on life experience, experiences which greatly differ depending on the individuals. This subjectivity behind when someone becomes an adult is a key theme in young people’s perceptions of adulthood. Multiple young carers who had been interviewed said that despite their young age, they felt like adults because they had been forced to perform tasks such as caring for others, shopping and paying bills on a regular basis. University students, on the other hand, often reported not feeling like adults, despite being over 18 and performing adult responsibilities. Why is this important? Because it suggests that the argument for whether or not 16 year olds are mature, or “adult” enough, is perhaps a dead-end argument due to the fact that maturity depends greatly on the individual.

Voting, is it an adult act?

This brings us to the fundamental point of why it is important to get young perspectives on this issue. Should 16 year olds vote because they are mature? Or because they deserve the right to have a say as a citizen of their country? Ultimately, does voting have anything to do with adulthood? Below are two quotes from our respondents:

“Young people don’t consider themselves adults because society doesn’t treat them like adults because we don’t have a vote”.

“Once young people have responsibility or are at the age to look after themselves, in my mind that makes them citizens.”

These responses highlight the complex relationship between adulthood and voting, and highlights a perspective that isn’t often discussed; citizenship. Paying National Insurance, or working, is an act of citizenship, yet many sixteen year olds feel that despite being deemed able enough to fulfil these duties, are not given a say in decisions that affect them.

Ultimately, it seems that voting does not have to be deemed an adult act in itself, rather it is that voting is perceived as an adult act in the eyes of society, creating another important question; is adulthood a matter of perception? To many, being treated as an adult was an important step into adulthood, and voting enables young people to be regarded as mature.

To conclude

Young people understand the responsibility that comes with the right to vote, yet they also recognise that adulthood does not necessarily come with a specific age or a specific set of rights. Rather, it is a process, which differs depending on who you are. Voting is not simply an issue of maturity, it is an issue of having a say as a citizen in society. Having spent time listening to and analysing the many different perspectives given by such a wide variety of young people, I have come to realise that getting young people’s voices heard in this debate is vital, and I hope that this project can continue to highlight the voices of the future.

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