If Americans could choose, many would set common age limits around where they are now

Oana DumitruContributor
October 06, 2022, 2:06 PM GMT+0

If you live in the U.S., at some point you may have asked yourself why 18 is the minimum age for voting, and 21 for drinking. While many age limits are imposed with the intent to protect people, some can seem arbitrary and there are ongoing debates around lowering or raising some of them. A recent YouGov poll asked Americans what age limits, if any, would be appropriate for various activities, and looked at the median — also known as the middle value — among Americans’ opinions. The median is the value that is above or equal to what half of people would choose, and below or equal to what the other half would choose, if you lined up everyone by their opinion.

The survey found that for many of the activities polled, American median opinion was consistent with current legal age limits in the U.S. For instance, the typical American view on the age limit for buying a handgun is that it should be 21; for running for Congress, that it should be 25; and for running for president, that it should be 35. However, some Americans also think there should be age limits for several activities that do not currently have a legal age requirement, such as being prescribed birth control. And for some actions, such as emancipating from your parents, Americans on average suggest a higher minimum age than is currently in place.

YouGov asked Americans two sets of questions: one about activities that may require age limits to be done without parental consent, and one about activities that may require age limits regardless of parental consent.

The age limit for buying handguns without parental consent has recently been under debate, with many suggesting that it should be raised. Eight in 10 Americans (83%) say there should be an age limit for buying a handgun without parental consent, 8% say there shouldn’t, and 9% say they are not sure. Among Americans who say there should be an age limit, 15% say the limit should be 25, 45% say it should be 21, and 23% say it should be 18. Only about 3% say the age limit should be between 12 and 17 years old.

Most Americans also agree that there should be an age limit for doing the following without parental consent: enlisting in the military, getting married, having cosmetic surgery, and being prescribed gender-affirming hormones. But other issues have Americans more split: 39% say there should be an age limit to be prescribed birth control and 40% say there should not be an age limit.

More Americans say there should not be an age limit than say there should be one when it comes to either opening a bank account and getting your ears pierced without parental consent.

YouGov also asked Americans who said there should be an age limit for these 15 issues to state what they think the legal minimum age should be without parental consent. On average, Americans who support age limits for each say someone should be at least 16 to be prescribed birth control without parental consent, 18 to be prescribed gender-affirming hormones, and 21 to buy a handgun or a rifle. Some of these responses may also reflect opposition to an activity being legal at all, something that was not asked about in the survey.

Having a part-time job got support for the lowest age limits of all polled activities without parental consent, with the median choice among backers of a minimum age being 17.

Some actions with age limits don’t typically involve parental consent, for instance running for president of the United States. While another recent YouGov poll (for CBS) found that many Americans support imposing maximum age limits for elected politicians, in this poll YouGov asked about the minimum age instead.

Majorities of Americans say there should be age limits for 11 of the 14 topics polled about. One of the three exceptions was receiving the death penalty for murder, which, by 44% to 33%, Americans say there should be an age limit for. This could reflect the fact that some people oppose the death penalty, regardless of age. Americans are also split on whether there should be an age limit to go to prison (41% yes to 39% no). The only issue polled that more Americans say there should not be an age limit for than say there should be an age limit is being convicted of a criminal offense (28% yes to 51% no).

Americans who said there should be a minimum age limit for each of these actions were also asked to indicate what they think the minimum age should be. For most issues, opinions among Americans who back a minimum age limit were closely in line with current legal age limits: 21 as the median age limit to buy cigarettes and 18 to vote in local or national elections, consent to sex, or go to prison. The median minimum age to serve as president of the U.S. was 35, consistent with the U.S. Constitution; however, at the 10th percentile (meaning 10% chose lower numbers) Americans who back a minimum age say people as young as 25 should be able to serve as president, while at the 90th percentile they say the president should be at least 45 years of age.

Americans’ responses on these questions seem to reflect their opinions on who should be considered an adult: Half of Americans say a person should be legally considered an adult at 18 years of age, 28% say 21 years of age, and 4% say 25. As for who should be most responsible for setting legal age limits for actions such as the ones polled, 45% of Americans say it should be the federal government’s responsibility and 33% say it should be the state government’s responsibility.

— Taylor Orth contributed to this article.

This poll was conducted on August 19 - 22, 2022 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Explore more on the methodology and data for this poll.

Related: More than half of Americans support a maximum age limit for elected officials

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