Today is my birthday. I’m not a big birthday person. Typically, I default to 'coy, but appreciative' every time someone acknowledges it. Plus, I have a summer birthday. I love celebrating with family but I rarely have with friends. I spent my last birthday alone, wandering Hollywood before seeing an overpriced movie. It was pretty sad — the day, not the movie. The movie sucked. Basically, I haven’t had a big birthday experience in several years.
This year, however, I’m turning 21 years old. Before, I regarded this milestone with meager excitement at best and apathy at worst. Why go out when I could drink with friends in the comfort of my own apartment and promptly pass out in bed as soon as the night wraps up? My 21st birthday didn’t feel like a big deal because I wasn’t big on alcohol, bars or clubs in the first place and couldn’t bring myself to care.
Things changed a bit when I spent last semester living in southern France — sorry, I didn’t intend to be that study abroad student. There, and in most of Europe, the drinking age is 18 years old. As I lived with a host family, a glass of wine with a meal or champagne before dinner to celebrate an achievement became custom. I ordered beer at restaurants and every once in a while went to a bar with my friends. I lived on the outskirts of town and, frankly, was too lazy to go out most of the time. Alcohol became a regular but moderate part of my life.
Then I got home, and suddenly the three months between my plane landing in the U.S. and my birthday seemed to stretch out into eternity. It felt like all of a sudden, I was being invited to every 21-plus event under the sun. Sometimes, it was nice to have an excuse to decline, but other times missing out was a total bummer. Last week — five days before my birthday — I went out with several coworkers for karaoke. Every place that had space were for those 21 and older. Every place for those 18 and older was booked up. I was ridiculously frustrated because I was so close to my birthday.
The reactionary part of me petulantly exclaims: “Lower the drinking age!” as I stew waiting for the days to pass by. The reality is that I don’t know enough to adequately make this argument. While a drinking age of 18 works in Europe, the drinking culture is radically different. Children there grow up with alcohol, and some start drinking wine at dinner around 12 years old and learn how to consume it safely. It has always been available and doesn’t bear the same kind of “forbidden fruit” allure or stigma that alcohol does in the U.S. That’s not to say that European youth don’t binge drink or party — trust me — but that’s not the point. Why binge at every opportunity when the opportunities are plentiful?
As it stands, by the time the drinking age is lowered in the U.S., it’ll likely be long after our generation. We can, however, laugh at the fact that 21 years old is incredibly arbitrary while also working to mitigate the consequences of binge drinking, especially on college campuses. Ultimately, things come down to personal responsibility; engage safely and knowledgeably, and stress less about your 21st birthday. As one of the youngest in my age group, I’ve been trying to quell the stress all summer. Luckily today, the stress will dissipate. Happy birthday to me.