Age Is Just a Number

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 27, 2007

To the casual visitor, Dupont Circle on this lovely autumn afternoon is a friendly, inclusive space.

To Alex Koroknay-Palicz, executive director of the National Youth Rights Association and voice in the wilderness, the Circle is a cold microcosm of a deeply divided world. And it's the perfect observation deck for pointing out the myriad ways American society devalues the lives of young people.

In untucked blue-striped shirt, khaki cargo shorts and sneakers, Koroknay-Palicz, 26, takes off his shades and points toward a:

- bank where you have to be 18 years old to open a checking account;

- sandwich shop that doesn't hire anyone under 18;

- drugstore where 17-year-olds can't buy certain cough medicines;

- movie theater where anyone under 17 who wants to see an R-rated movie must be accompanied by an adult.

He could, he says, go on and on. And for the next couple of hours, he does.

Seen through his eyes, the city is hostile to young people. And the United States is a repressive country that should lower voting and drinking ages and lift all curfews. In fact, Koroknay-Palicz (pronounced koh-ROCK-nay PAL-is) believes that all age-based restrictions -- on driver's licenses, tobacco purchases, car rentals -- should be challenged.

Just about any age restriction, he says, can be replaced with a competency test. If a young person wants to drink, for instance, he could be required to attend classes that teach responsibility and moderation. He would then receive a license to drink. Same with smoking, voting, driving and many other activities.

To him, the denial of youth rights is more than ageist effrontery, it's a civil rights issue.

It takes a certain kind of grown-up to champion such a cause -- someone who hasn't forgotten the indignities of youth. Someone who can live in Washington on an $8,000-a-year salary. And someone who can face the issue's greatest enemy: getting people to take it seriously.

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