WHEN it comes to the traditional milestones of adulthood, Angela Murray is knocking them off early. By the time she turned 18 she had already been out of school for two years, having managed to get a job in a major company before she had even done her prelims. She’s already looking to buy her own flat, though she finds the prospect “scary”. At the time of her 18th birthday, she recalls thinking: “That’s me, I’m an adult now, I’m free to do what I want”.
But it was a brief thrill. Soon after, she says: “I realised that you’re just the exact same you were when you were 17. There’s a change of number. You’re free to do a few more things. But in terms of the way people look at you, you’re still, even in your family, a child.”
Murray describes being 18 as “like being in limbo”. She feels, she explains, “like I’m an adult, but at the same time I’m not. I’m at the stage in life where I don’t know what I want to do, where I want to go. But you feel there is such an expectation, this is it, you’re an adult, what do you want to do?”
We do our growing up a little earlier in Scotland, so by the time you are 18 you have already been able to vote (in Scottish elections), get married or enter into a civil partnership without parental consent, hold an adult passport and stand for election for the past two years, and you’ll have been eligible to be tried in an adult court since you were 12 (although should you find yourself there, you can’t be sent to an adult prison until you’re 21). But the age of 18 remains in our culture a huge turning point and milestone, the year when we officially become an adult – when we can add gambling, voting in UK elections, buying drinks in the pub, getting a tattoo, and serving on a jury to our list of rights and privileges, and celebrate that by legally buying fireworks to boot.
But for most of those actually turning 18, the idea of adulthood hovers around the date rather hazily. It can seem like a threat. It can seem loaded with possibility. When the day itself comes it can seem like many others, though marked by a big party, in effect an excessive legal drinking session. That, after all, is how we do rites of passage in Scotland.
The truth is that where people are on their passage to adulthood varies wildly at the age of 18, as it does, frequently throughout their 20s. Some, like Murray, have already been working for years, others are still at school, some at university, others are on gap years. Some are living at home, some setting up in their own flats or in shared houses. Though we can identify milestones, or assign a specific age, there is a more elusive concept of adulthood which young people are moving towards.
Researchers frequently refer now to a phase, often called emerging adulthood, between 18 and 25, in which young adults find their own paths. Within this span of years there are rites of passage – the gap year for instance. There are ceremonies – the graduation from school or university. There are even, for some, huge life events – having children, getting married. Culture and socio-economics play a major part in the different paths people take.
While young people revel in the freedoms that adulthood brings, for many it is daunting. Partly that is because of the weight that society puts on it. Cara Brodie, who turned 18 in May last year recalls: “I knew that this was going to be the year that everything would change. I would move away to uni. I knew it marked the beginning of adulthood in that sense.” For Brodie, studying sociology and anthropology at Edinburgh University, this has been the year when she has moved out of her family home, and as she says, had to “be responsible for myself and independent”. That is not, of course, the case for everyone. “For some of my friends it has been completely different. They’re still at home. Their lives are still very much the same”.
For her, one of the big moments of growing up came when she sat around the table on her first night at university “with loads of people I didn’t know and thought how I was going to be living with them for the next year”. “I was in shock,” she recalls, “taken aback. Because getting to know everyone was quite scary. That summer I’d just broken up with my boyfriend of two years as well. That was a huge change. A huge part of my life had ended and I was going to another huge part of my life.”
If one of the freedoms of adulthood is drinking, then many young people today, as generations did before them, have passed that threshold beforehand. They have sported their fake ID cards and acted out being 18. A 2014 study showed, for instance, that 45 per cent of teen Scots had experienced binge drinking by the age of 14. 
One of the features of the cohort of young people who are 18 this year is that they are part of Generation Z, the generation after the Millennials, who have grown up with connectivity as a ubiquitous feature in their lives. Coming of age in 2017 also means entering adulthood in a world where everything is digital, porn has been made easily accessible, and there has been huge anxiety about how they communicate and represent themselves online.
Characteristics of Generation Z include a more fluid approach to gender and sexuality – only around 50 per cent of young people surveyed in the United States said they were heterosexual. They are more likely to practise safe sex. And they are less likely to have babies. Though teen pregnancy rates were slashed by around 50 per cent in the decade leading to 2014, it remains the case that teenage girls from the poorest areas are five times more likely to become pregnant than their wealthier peers.
But also one thing that looks likely, given trends, is that they will hit some of the key milestones of adulthood later than previous generations. As Vernon Gayle, Professor of Sociology and Social Statistics at the University of Edinburgh observes, “the youth phase is expanding”.
“Teenage attitudes,” he says, “behaviours, and acts of consumption are evident in younger kids who would previously have been considered as children. The other end of the youth phase appears to have an ever-lengthening tail. Adults in their 20s and beyond routinely maintain attitudes, engage in behaviours and live lifestyles that have both striking and persistent similarities with younger counterparts in the youth phase.” In other words, pre-teen kids are acting like teenagers and so are young adults. However, he notes, that there is no “homogenous” youth phase. It is “shaped by multiple factors including social class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity”.
Turning 18 might not be so very different for Generation Z than it was, say for Generation X, but it has changed over the centuries. As Gayle describes: “Horatio Nelson had spent a third of his life in the Navy by the time he was 18. Before the war the school leaving age was 14 and even as recently as the early 1970s most pupils left school before they were 16.”
What do today’s 18-year-olds want out of life? Few of them yet have very rigid plans. “I want to be happy,” says Emilia Di Ciacca, who turned 18 this month and is studying fashion and business at Fife college. “I don’t really care about anything else. I think to be happy I’d have to have a stable job. I want to have kids and I don’t know if I want a dog or not. But I want to have a life first before I have kids. I want to travel, like my mum did, before I have kids.”
Very few of the young adults I spoke to said they actually feel like an adult – hardly surprising given the number of people in their 30s and beyond who still struggle with the notion. “I still don’t feel like an adult,” says Cara Brodie, “but then when I think about the things that I’m now doing for myself that I wasn’t before, I feel like I’ve matured a lot.” Yet already she is living away from her family home and making her way towards some sort of financial independence, with a job as an usher at the Lyceum theatre. 
Often they see adulthood as lying, not in tangible milestones, but self-development. As 19-year-old Lauren Gage, student of philosophy and maths at the University of St Andrews describes: “I think it’s figuring out who you are as a person. When you figure out what sort of behaviour makes you happiest and you don’t have to think about it, that’s a real sign of adulthood.” Gage says she doesn’t yet feel like an adult. “How would you really? Being at university makes you feel quite childlike. You still feel like you’re very much part of an institution where you’re lowest of the ranks.” Even, she observes, her boyfriend, who is 24 and studying medicine, doesn’t see himself as an adult yet. “He’s technically an adult but he doesn’t feel like one because he’s still in the whole education process. He reckons that to become an adult is to be independent and not have to rely on anyone. When you can support yourself without relying on parents or family that’s a definite sign of adulthood.”

How people feel about being 18 depends a little on where they are on their journey with it. Michael Robertson, still at school in Edinburgh, only recently turned 18. He recalls that he was given an “18 years old” balloon which floated in his room, taunting him with its ominous sense of change and responsibility, till it drove him to pop it after five days. An aspiring actor, who has developed his skills with the Strange Town theatre company, he hopes to gain a place at the Conservatoire in Glasgow, but this would mean moving city, and living away from home. “I’m daunted by moving out of home. I think leaving school is bigger than turning 18 – it’s about leaving my comfort zone.”
All that change seems as yet ahead of him. Exams loom; pressure mounts. “I feel I’m already on the path now to adulthood. I think the path started when I hit secondary school but now it’s got a lot harder. You’ve got to take a lot more responsibility now.”
For Oscar McIntosh, a student in TV production at Glasgow Kelvin College who turned 18 much later than all his friends, the arrival of the date was a “relief”. “In terms of becoming an adult I think turning 18 is not as important as other things,” he says, “I would say a more accurate passage into adulthood is moving out of home, successfully managing money and staying on top of everything, that is far more of a landmark that being ‘legally’ allowed to drink booze.”
Although for Emilia Di Caccia, that particular milestone is more than the sum of its parts. “When you’re 18 you’re able to socialise in a lot more places. The world opens up.”