What Does It Mean to be an Adult? Exploring the Definition

As we age, defining what it means to be an adult can be a tricky task. Does reaching a certain age make someone an adult? Is it defined by societal and cultural norms? Or is it based on individual experiences and achievements? In this article, we will explore the definition of being an adult and the many factors that can influence it.

The Legal Definition

Legally, becoming an adult is defined by a set age limit. In most countries, the age of majority is 18, although it can range from 16 to 21. At this age, individuals gain certain rights and responsibilities, such as the ability to vote, buy tobacco and alcohol, and enter into legally binding contracts.

However, even with a set age limit, the definition of being an adult can vary depending on the context. For example, someone who is legally an adult may not be considered one in terms of emotional maturity or life experience.

What Are the Legal Rights and Responsibilities of Being an Adult?

  • Voting
  • Buying tobacco and alcohol
  • Entering into legally binding contracts
  • Being tried as an adult in criminal court
  • Working without age restrictions or permits

The Cultural Definition

Cultural definitions of adulthood can vary widely between different societies and even within them. For example, some cultures may emphasize the importance of marriage and starting a family, while others may focus on career or education.

Cultural definitions may also be influenced by gender. In some societies, becoming an adult for men may be linked to achieving financial stability and independence, while for women it may be tied to marriage and starting a family.

How Does Culture Influence the Definition of Adulthood?

  • Emphasis on Marriage and Family
  • Focus on Career and Education
  • Gender-based Differences in Definitions
  • Religious Influences on Definitions
  • Expectations of Society and Social Status

The Psychological Definition

Psychologically, becoming an adult is linked to achieving certain milestones in personal growth and development. This can include emotional maturity, self-awareness, and the ability to make responsible decisions.

Developmental theories suggest that the transition to adulthood is a gradual process that includes physical, cognitive, and social changes. This process is different for every individual and may depend on personal experiences and environmental factors.

What Are the Psychological Milestones of Becoming an Adult?

  • Emotional Maturity
  • Self-awareness
  • Responsibility
  • Independence
  • Autonomy
  • Developing a Sense of Identity

The Societal Definition

Societal definitions of adulthood can be shaped by societal norms and expectations. For example, in some societies, the ability to financially support oneself or a family is seen as a mark of adulthood.

Societal definitions can also be influenced by historical and cultural factors, as well as social class and economic status.

What Are the Societal Norms and Expectations Related to Adulthood?

  • Financial Independence
  • Maturity and Responsibility
  • Career Success
  • Marriage and Family
  • Community and Social Responsibility

The Personal Definition

Lastly, being an adult can be defined based on individual experiences and achievements. This can include things like completing a degree, starting a business or a family, or facing and overcoming personal challenges.

Personal definitions of adulthood can be shaped by a variety of factors, including culture, background, and individual goals and aspirations.

What Are Some Real-life Examples of Personal Definitions of Adulthood?

  • Completing a college degree or vocational training
  • Starting a business
  • Raising a family
  • Surviving a personal or family crisis
  • Traveling and seeing the world
  • Fighting for a cause or social issue


Looking at the various definitions of what it means to be an adult, it becomes clear that there is no one-size-fits-all answer. The legal, cultural, psychological, societal and personal factors that shape the definition of adulthood will vary depending on each individual’s experiences and circumstances.

While it may be tempting to try and fit into a single definition of adulthood, it is important to remember that everyone’s journey is different. Whether we become adults at 18 or 50, what truly matters is that we are able to live our lives with purpose, passion, and a sense of fulfillment.


  • What age is considered an adult?
  • Most commonly, 18 is the age considered to be adult.

  • Can someone be considered an adult without turning 18?
  • Yes, although rare, emancipation processes can be applied to minors in various states to grant them adult status before turning 18.

  • Does becoming an adult mean you automatically gain certain rights?
  • Yes, at certain ages, becoming an adult means you gain rights like entering contracts, purchasing tobacco and alcohol, and voting.

  • Is there a standard definition of what adulthood means?
  • No. Legally, adulthood is defined by age, but there are numerous cultural, psychological, societal, and personal influences on the definition.

  • Can adulthood be lost?
  • Yes, some countries allow courts to revoke adult status in cases where someone isn’t mentally or physically capable of taking care of themselves or their own affairs.


  • Arnett, J. J. (2015). Emerging adulthood: The winding road from the late teens through the twenties. (2nd Ed). Oxford University Press.
  • Tanner, J. L. (1990). Tanner lectures on human values. Oxford University Press.
  • Nelson, L. J., Padilla-Walker, L. M., & Christensen, K. J. (2013). “What is it to be an adult?”: The impact of message frames, harm, and social norms on emerging adults’ beliefs about adulthood. Journal of Adolescent Research, 28(4), 403-424.

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