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Competence Zone

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Every television show has its own average age-range of competence. Only people inside that range, whatever it is, are likely to be competent at anything relevant to the show.

This holds whether you're trying to save the world or just performing A Simple Plan. If you're too young or too old, you're outside the Competence Zone of the show, which makes you dead weight. The 'kid' is innocent or bratty, and needs protecting. The old guy is cranky and complains too much.

That sounds like common sense, but television often takes it a step further: the Competence Zone becomes a relative thing. A 17-year-old among twenty-somethings is just as much the "kid" as the ten-year-old among thirty-somethings. A 22-year-old is an "old guy" on a show about preteens just as much as the 55-year-old father is on a show about young adults. The only difference between shows is that the zone itself gets wider or narrower.

This occurs because the main cast of a series are often near the same age as the target demographic. We relate to them, so we can subjectively ignore ages much different than common sense may indicate. However, any deviations from this become obvious, and seem to demand explanation. If the older/younger characters are just as competent, there's usually some inherent quirky trait allowing them to be so. A Creepy Child, a Manchild, a pseudo-child and Wise Beyond Their Years are ways to play with personalities to make them fit into the Competence Zone where the writers want them to, while mascots and Team Pets have a vague enough age that you can fit them anywhere you want. Occasionally, someone is far enough out of the Competence Zone that they become useful again — grandfatherly mentors are more useful than parents, and genius pre-teens are more useful than the average high school student. This may be because authority conflicts or their notable absence are less likely to distract from the story this way. A pre-teen genius would be less likely to conflict with adult characters and demand more autonomy than a 17-year-old, whereas a grandfather would be less likely to attempt to exert control over a teen cast because it's not his job to be the strict authority figure.

Most inexplicably, if the main cast ages during the run of the show, the Competence Zone may move with them. On the other hand, if the show changes to focus on different characters as old ones move on, the original cast may slip outside the Competence Zone.

Subtropes include Adults Are Useless and Teens Are Monsters. See also Improbable Age, where the Competence Zone is imbalanced enough for viewers to notice. In a Teenage Wasteland, the characters may or may not have reached the self-governance Competence Zone. Can overlap with Protagonist-Centered Morality. Sister Trope of Gender Incompetence.

Note: Aversions, Subversions, Inversions, or cases where there is both a "too young" and "too old" may be put in either category, or whichever seems more fitting

Examples of too young:

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    Anime and Manga 
  • Love Hina:
    • Motoko is a serious Huge Schoolgirl who's treated like the other twentysomethingers, while the meek Shinobu is treated like a kid, despite them being only three years apart in age.
    • Sarah's first appearances simply establish her as a Bratty Halfpint. Both the comic and show have a deliberate and funny 'reveal' scene where we notice than even the small Shinobu is much taller than her.
  • Future Boy Conan sets this line at around 11. The heroic kids are not only smarter than most of their adult counterparts, the title character is stronger and faster too. Once you become a grandparent you are competent again. At least until you get killed.
  • This seems to be in effect for Hayate the Combat Butler, everyone is within three years of 16 who is competent. The others are side characters just tossed in for humor (which of course is the point of the story).
    • Nagi's grandfather Mikado is old enough to be part of the circle-around mentality, except he's the one recurring character we can be sure is a villan. Isumi's great-grandmother also circles around, but is on the protagonist's side after her entrance (when she plays at being within the competency zone).
    • Athena plays with this one, supposedly being the same age as the male lead for her first two appearances, while Older Than They Look questions are tossed about. But as of chapter 300, she's been de-aged to appear six. So it's unknown if she's competent, circles around, or stands firmly outside.
  • In The Law of Ueki, all the fighters are middle school students.
  • Subverted and played with in Bleach. The core cast of Ichigo and his friends are noted to be especially powerful, but age is also a factor in how powers work in-universe (though there are a couple of notable exceptions). Everyone has a Semantic Superpower of some kind and experience is key to utilizing them to the best of their abilities.
    • Ichigo in particular is singled out for this, with an elder captain noting that he "gained power decades before he was ready to use it", though all of his friends fall into the category of Unskilled, but Strong. It is revealed later on that Ichigo's unusual strength and skill set is a direct result of the machinations of the Big Bad at the time.
    • Rukia and Abarai, the two shinigami who look the closest to Ichigo's given age, are about 150 years old, give or take a few years. Captain Hitsugaya is notably younger (being less than a century old) and far more powerful than those two, but he is also noted to be a Child Prodigy in the same vein as Ichigo.
    • Aizen is several centuries old, about on par with his peers, but much like the aforementioned Ichigo and Hitsugaya he was born powerful and was gifted with a Story-Breaker Power besides. Despite this, he is still not as strong as...
    • Captain-Commander Yamamoto, who plays the trope dead straight. He's ancient, more experienced than all but one of his subordinates, and holds his position through Asskicking Leads to Leadership. His counterpart Yhwach is just as old as he is, commands an army of his own, and is a Power Parasite later upgraded to The Assimilator on top of that.
  • Mostly subverted in Naruto. While most of the main cast consists of teenagers, the world's most competent warriors range from age 16 to age 70. Onoki of the Scales, for example, was still capable of stopping a meteor from crashing into his army at age 79. He did sprain his back in the process, mind you.
  • In Full Metal Panic!, all the people who do any work or accomplish anything (especially with regards to saving the day) are 16 years old. Sort of explained as most of the 16-year-olds are actually Whispereds - special geniuses born with knowledge of Black Technology, all of whom were born at almost the exact same time. Except... the explanation still doesn't cover why Sousuke, who is also 16 (and who is the most useful character (he is the main character after all)),is still a young genius despite not being a Whispered. The rest of the characters (who are older) don't do nearly as much for the plot.
    • However, Sousuke has more experience than some older characters. He has been a soldier since he was a child, while Mao and Kurz weren't. He is younger, not more inexperienced.
  • Played with in One Piece. While the Straw Hats are all generally on the young end, with many members as teens even after the timeskip, most major threats are thirty five or older with the toughest marines and pirates all being late forties at the youngest.
    • This is why many of the Eleven Supernovas are seen as unusual on top of being rookie pirates, with Luffy at 17, Zoro at 19, Kid at 21, and Law at 24 at the time of gaining the title they're very young for the universe in regards to major threats.
    • Averted by this point. The ages of the Strawhat Pirates alone are: 19, 21, 20, 19, 21, 17, 30, 36, and 90. While the majority are in a close range, they go way beyond it, and those characters are no less competent. Other extremely important and competent characters include Whitebeard at 72, Admiral Akainu at 55, and recurring villain Blackbard at 40. Ace and Sabo were extremely competent as children in flashbacks, with older characters retaining their competence in those flashbacks, and Dellinger of the Doflamingo Pirates was shown as a credible threat even at 16 in the present.
  • Invoked in The Wind Rises, but applied to individuals instead of a specific age range. The protagonist, Jiro Horikoshi, has a dream in which his idol, the Italian engineer Giovanni Battista Caproni, tells him that artists and engineers are only creative for 10 years.

    Comic Books 
  • In Runaways, all the heroes are teenage runaways except Molly, who is an 11-year-old. Even though Molly has superstrength and routinely pounds bad guys with it, the other kids keep sheltering her. When they fight off a supervillain when she's out, they decide to never tell her that a villain ever attacked. However, adults explicitly note more than once that she acts childlike to lower people's defenses, and she's showed plenty of competence in her Day in the Limelight story.

    Fan Works 
  • The competence zone is shifted notably upwards in Game Theory from what it was in Lyrical Nanoha. While children in this story are no less capable in terms of fighting abilities, they tend to lack the maturity that comes with experience, and consequently make errors in judgement. The adults, on the other hand, get handed far fewer Idiot Balls than they did in canon.
    • It's also lampshaded. Characters in the story find Star Wars ridiculous for having 20-something Luke as the Nave Newcomer and Obi-Wan still fighting.
  • In Frenzy, Sonic doesn't want to wake up Cream at six in the morning because she's only six years old, but he's fine with going over to eight year old Tails' house. He even guesses that Tails is already probably awake toiling with some electronics early in the morning.

  • In the Xanth book series by Piers Anthony, the Adult Conspiracy is a seemingly magically-enforced pact among every adult in the world to prevent children from learning about sex, swearing, or nudity. Every adult human, at any rate - the rest of 'em don't seem to care too much; centaurs and demons being depicted as more carefree, for example.
  • Harry Potter:
    • In the early books, Ginny was outside the Competence Zone and in general portrayed as a helpless innocent. This is despite the fact that she is only one year younger than the trio and thus always the same age Harry was in the previous book. This was subverted in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Ginny is allowed to help after pointing out she is three years older than Harry was during his first confrontation with Voldemort, giving her the opportunity to show that she Took a Level in Badass.
    • Followed confusingly in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for the climactic battle, where the good guys weaken their numbers by sending the under-17s away. This is justified because, well, adults don't generally like youths putting their lives on the line, and Harry and Co.'s adventures were generally without adult approval.
  • The Baby-Sitters Club: Mallory and Jessi are mature enough to babysit and be trusted to wander around Stoneybrook alone among other things. Most ten year olds are not. It becomes a major plot point a couple of times.
  • In The Egypt Game, eleven-year-olds April and Melanie worry about nine-year-old Elizabeth being outside the Competence Zone. She turns out to be more competent than they expect, although she's still portrayed as a Nave Newcomer. Oddly, they had no such reservations about Melanie's four-year-old brother Marshall, but then he is a precocious genius. (Which kids put a lot more stock in than adults do.)

    Live Action TV 
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
    • Dawn is a clueless freshman when first introduced, despite being at most one year younger than Buffy was when she started killing vampires every night. Lampshaded on multiple occasions when Buffy is being protective (over- or not).
    • Abused by Seasons 7 and 8 when it comes to Dawn. In Season 7 she quickly goes into the role of The Smart Guy and is generally much more useful. Then Buffy tries to have her taken out of the battle by having Xander chloroform and kidnap her. She tazers him and drives the car home after waking up. Season 8 has her saving Xander's life and then later on being the only one to realize that Buffy sprouting new powers including flying might not be as good as they think it is.
  • Degrassi: The Next Generation: Angela is a little girl of highly Vague Age, surrounded by teenagers. Her sole purpose on the show is to be a pure innocent who cannot be exposed to the typical Soap Opera nightmares happening around her; the other characters know they've gone too far when something they do affects Angela.
  • Drake & Josh: Subverted Trope, in which the main characters' younger sister Megan is portrayed as being more competent than most of the adults around her.
  • Ghostwriter:
    • The 13-year-olds were competent, but anybody younger become a comic-relief sidekick. Particularly strange was when Gabby got too old to be comic relief, became competent, then was replaced with a younger actress who acted even more naive than the original Gabby did.
    • They did make this a Subverted Trope once: When Jamal's family takes Casey in, they try to keep the truth from Casey about her alcoholic mother, and this is more trouble than just telling her would have been.
  • My So-Called Life: 15-year-old Angela's 10-year-old sister Danielle is too young to be part of Angela's group, but does have sarcasm down....
  • Revolution: The competence zone in this show is set pretty high to at least 30 years old. Charlie Matheson, Nate Walker/Jason Neville, and Danny Matheson, despite being at least older teenagers and at most young adults, are treated as stupid kids who can't take care of themselves. Meanwhile, the older adults seem to have loads of competence.
  • Stargate SG-1:
    • Treated Jack O'Neill's teenage clone as just a kid and sent him to ''high school'', even though mentally he was no younger than the original.
    • Then again, mini-Jack doesn't seem too upset about being surrounded by teenage hotties who are clearly no match for his superior maturity and experience.
    • Alternately, he may have no intention of staying in high school. Jack probably knows how to disappear, and who would think a fifteen-year-old actually had the memories of a fifty year old special ops officer?

    Video Games 
  • Metal Gear is notable in that it has a much older cast than usual in video games or media in general - much of the cast is in its thirties or forties or beyond. The result is that the Bishōnen, in his mid-twenties, falls outside the Competence Zone and becomes This Loser Is You. Until the fourth installment, where he goes cybernetic badass on us.
  • The two youngest kids of Backyard Sports, Luanne Lui and Ronny Dobbs, were removed from the series after Backyard Baseball 2007.

  • In the Webcomic Questionable Content, most of the cast is in their early-to-mid-20s, but Ellen first appears just before her 18th birthday. Sometimes she's as competent as the rest of the cast, but she has her moments, like not knowing (in a discussion of porn) that it's considered unusual for a girl to do double-penetration with her boyfriend and some other dude.
  • Addressed in Gold Coin Comics when asked about their age.

    Western Animation 
  • Jade from Jackie Chan Adventures is considered too young to fight against forces of evil, or anything for that matter, not that this actually stops her of course.
  • In Recess, the Kindergarteners are portrayed as wild savages, and the adults are generally clueless. Older children like the King and his guards are often so concerned with their own power that they're incompetent rulers.

    Real Life 
  • In any company which requires selling something, particularly a form of credit or anything else a bit financially risky or important, a customer is far more likely to trust and therefore sign up with an older person, even if a much younger person uses exactly the same selling-pitch.
  • In many white-collar professions (e.g. law, medicine, architecture) the sheer amount of education, practice, and accreditation required mean that it's difficult or impossible for a young person to be preeminent in their field.
    • Simultaneously, some of these professions (like that of surgeon) require levels of physical dexterity that erode over time as well as the mental ability to keep abreast of the latest developments in their field. For such people, there is a very specific sweet spot where their education, experience, mental acuity, and physical ability allow them to operate at peak efficiency before they start slowing down.
  • Politicians by and large are at least in their forties when they start becoming noticed on the national stage. Aversions usually have to deal with their competence being called into question far more often than older people with the same credentials. This is Older Than They Think as most non-monarchical posts in politics were occupied by 50-somethings and 60-somethings throughout history. This becomes a problem when a thirty year old is deemed "too young" to be mayor but a forty year old minister is said to lack experience if he hasn't been a mayor before...
    • This is actually enshrined in the US Constitution, which has minimum age requirements that must be met before someone can run for Congressman, Senator or President.

Examples of too old:

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  • If most cereal commercials (namely Apple Jacks and Cinnamon Toast Crunch) are to be believed, adults are the biggest morons on the planet and don't understand anything and just exist to be scorned mercilessly for their idiocy by their children. They are also physically incapable of grasping why children enjoy cereal.
  • Most commercials for nursing homes, home health, hospice, senior services, etc. will feature a middle-aged person worried about "Mom". (By contrast, commercials for Ensure or prescription medicines for things like arthritis show Mom to be in good health and still enjoying a fulfilling life.)

    Anime and Manga 
  • Cheerfully blown to pieces by Lyrical Nanoha. Where most magical girls lose their powers as they grow up, Nanoha's ability to blow shit up only gets bigger and flashier as she goes from a pre-teen in the original and A's series to an adult in StrikerS and a mother in ViVid, ViVid Strike, and Force. They actually had to remove "Girl" from the title in Force since Nanoha is 25 at that point.
  • In Ranma , nobody between the age of 19 and 100-300 is worth crap — except Dr. Tofu, who vanished without a trace early on. Ranma's father, though one of the most powerful martial artists in the series, is a coward, a leech, a bully, a criminal, and much more. Akane's father is better, but he's still a an emotional wreck who lets people use him. Principal Kuno is... one of a kind. None of them ever accomplish anything on their own; the teens have to do it. (The senior citizens, Cologne and Happosai, are just as messed up, but they're actually competent.)
  • Arguably all the Digimon series is this trope. Except perhaps Digimon Data Squad.
    • The tween heroes from Digimon Adventure are apparently too old to save the world in Digimon Adventure 02 — even though only three years have passed. Sure, they show up as cameo characters, passing on knowledge or goggles to the new heroes, but with the exception of the two youngest, they make a big point of not participating in the struggle. There's a few reasons for this: the older kids are simply too busy to do so now that life is catching up to them — hell, Mimi doesn't even live in Japan anymore — and their partner Digimon can't evolve at all with the Digimon Kaiser's Dark Towers around, so they are worth shit in a fight... hence the new recruits.
    • Don't forget Digimon Tamers, where this trope is utterly skewered since many of the adult characters become extremely important characters (as in absolutely integral to the final battle). They aren't out on the front lines, but they are arguably the most helpful non combatant characters the franchise has seen thus far.
  • And Devil Hunter Yohko is the same — Yohko and her grandmother are both Devil Hunters, but Yohko's mother is a boozy slut who didn't want to take on the family duty to fight supernatural monsters and disqualified herself as quickly as she could.
  • With the exceptions of Run-Run and Sly, anyone significantly older than Kukuri and Nike in Magical Circle Guru-Guru is downright useless. Old Man North-North is practically a millstone as often as he's useful.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion is a rare case where nobody is in the Competence Zone. The older generation has both brought ruin upon the world, and left the younger generation too emotionally crippled to fix it.
  • Strike Witches' competence zone is basically ages 12-18 - its a major plot point that the oldest member of the team is losing her powers.
  • In Soul Eater prior to taking their various levels in badass the kids were clearly outclassed by their teachers. Now, groups of students form an 'elite' unit who apparently outperform the average adult Shibusen uniformed mooks, and the adults previously shown as competent have recently been worfed in the space of a page or two.
  • Subverted in Tiger & Bunny, where middle-aged Kotetsu T. Kaburagi manages to be deceptively competent and extremely heroic despite his frequently lampshaded "past his prime" status. Word of God says that the character was basically created to give the typical anime competence zone the middle finger.
  • Subverted in The Mysterious Cities of Gold: the considerably older Mendoza is the most competent member of the group, as befitting of a seasoned explorer with years of experience. The children often look to him for guidance and leadership. There's a strict division of competence, however. Mendoza is competent in almost all aspects fitting his role as Team Dad and protector (combat, navigation, survival, combat, asskicking, geography, combat and asskicking), however he's strictly useless for understanding the ancient technology of Mu, or solving the various ancient puzzles and riddles the group comes across in this area, the kids are strictly the only competent ones.

    Comic Books 
  • Comic-book example: Ultimate Spider-Man is very deliberately based on this. The main theme of the story is that adults have all screwed up the world, and the teen-age Spider-Man, who barely understands what they've done, has to do his best to fix it. At one point, Spider-Man directly tells the reader this in a monologue.
    • Similarly, in Runaways, when he feeds the "With great power" line to the titular characters, Gert scornfully remarks, "That's inane. Most people in life never have great power, and the few that do are almost never responsible with it. The people with the greatest responsibility are the kids with no power because we're the ones who have to keep everybody else in check", to which he replies (totally deadpan), "Wow. You are totally gonna be an Avenger when you grow up."
  • Happens in the Legion of Super-Heroes to various degrees, in the first years of the original, in the reboot, and in the threeboot, with teenagers being the only superheroes in the setting and R. J. Brande as the useful old mentor. Especially so in the threeboot, with the Legionnaires being on the forefront of youth rebellion throughout the galaxy and where Supergirl in the Legion was noticeably more mature than she was in her own book because she's not in the Competence Zone there. (In the current version the Legion has aged enough that the Competence Zone is just "adult" and not noticeable.)

    Fan Fic 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Super 8 seems to suffer from this, with many of the children having adult competence levels and developed skills, and most of the adults (except Jack) just following direction. And the young adults are potheads.

  • A Series of Unfortunate Events, in which every single adult (with the exception of Count Olaf and the Snicket siblings) is much, much less competent than infant Sunny.
    • Even Count Olaf isn't exactly competent by himself, it's just that he has a lot of resources to work with and usually only has to fool incompetent people. This becomes most apparent in the final book where his usual Paper-Thin Disguise doesn't fool anyone.
  • Anyone not in the inner circle of Animorphs, though this makes sense, as the inner circle have the most experience fighting the Yeerks.
  • In The Great Brain books, boys start leaving the Competence Zone around age 13, when they start working and develop an interest in girls and therefore have less time for kids' games.
  • The short story "Age of Retirement" by Hal Lynch (published 1954), had the Space Patrol mandatory retirement age as sixteen. (What saved it from being a horror story about Child Soldiers was that the weapons used by cops and "afflicteds" alike were all nonlethal.)
    "The Patrol's found out that after your fifteenth year you somehow 'put away these things.' The glory dies away, as new yearnings come, until you find yourself a stranger to what you used to be. So the Patrol makes you step down before you reach that point, Tommy."
  • Apparently, except for Mazer Rackham himself, nobody over 12 is competent to command in the Ender's Game universe. The books justify this by insisting that these kids are the first generation to be put through Battle School, where they are raised to think tactically all the time. Also this doesn't make older people incompetent - they're just using the children's special abilities in an all-out war. There are many types of leadership and competence.
  • The Rest Of Us Just Live Here plays with this: adults never seem to notice even large-scale supernatural events. Such events have been going on for decades, so narrator Mikey wonders whether people forget what they've seen as they age out of the Competence Zone, or if they're just pretending not to notice. The adults he talks to imply that the truth is closer to the latter.

    Live Action TV 
  • In Degrassi: The Next Generation, no teens more than a year older or younger than the main cast even exist. Every adult on the show who wasn't a kid in previous ''Degrassi" series is either a Spear Carrier, incompetent, evil or all three. Those who were there before are in the zone despite what the current generation think. ("My mom's cool but she's not that cool.") All university students (except the main cast, once they go to university) are competent and evil.
  • Despite some episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Giles is referred to as the useless old English fuddy-duddy like when he tells Buffy she will die in the season 1 finale, he uses his magical know-how to save Buffy's life in episode two, so even though he's probably older than her mother he doesn't fit this trope. Joyce Summers, however, fits it perfectly because Buffy keeps her from knowing about the slaying, as does Principal Flutie.
    • Wesley is a subversion as a young(er) person who's painfully outside any zone of competence (at first).
      • Really, he was outside both competence zones. He was outside the 30+ one (Giles, Angel, Jenny when she was alive and all of the Big Bads) but outside the under 20 one. The under 20 one moved upwards over time while the other one stood still.
  • Parodied in an episode of How I Met Your Mother, when Robin has a 40-year-old boyfriend who the narrator admits probably wasn't as outrageously old as the group imagined. In the show, the 40-year-old is played by a man in his 60's to demonstrate the exaggerated imagination.
  • Averted in Stranger Things. Although the show mostly focuses on its child protagonists and does play Adults Are Useless straight in some cases (most notably the Parental Obliviousness of Ted and Karen Wheeler), many characters of all ages, including teenagers (Nancy, Jonathan, Steve and Robin), adults (Joyce, Hopper and Murray) and even Lucas's Bratty Half-Pint little sister Erica, are portrayed as competent and useful.

    Tabletop Games 

    Video Games 
  • Extremely common in many videogames, most especially console RPGs, from the Grand List of Console RPG Cliches:
    RPG characters are young. Very young. The average age seems to be 15, unless the character is a decorated and battle-hardened soldier, in which case he might even be as old as 18. Such teenagers often have skills with multiple weapons and magic, years of experience, and never ever worry about their parents telling them to come home from adventuring before bedtime. By contrast, characters more than twenty-two years old will cheerfully refer to themselves as washed-up old fogies and be eager to make room for the younger generation.
  • The Tales Series as a whole has a fairly narrow competence zone, usually between middle/late teens to early twenties. Most of the playable cast will fall between these ages (and good luck with any of the non-playable cast doing anything to help you save the world), although there are exceptions:
    • Tales of the Abyss: Jade Curtiss, all of 35 years old, will make comments about old folks like him not being as competent as the younger members of the group, who all at least 15 years younger than he is. Story-wise he's a tremendously powerful mage and a scientific genius, but shortly after you meet him someone deploys some kind of seal on him, reducing his level from 45 to something closer to the other party members.
    • Tales of Vesperia plays it straight with Raven, 35 years old, being called an "old man" and constantly whining about his age.
    • Similarly, Malik is a 40-year old travelling with a bunch of kids mostly in their late teens. Nobody else his age is shown to be doing all that much to help avert the end of the world.
    • And way before all of the above, there was 29-year-old Klarth in Tales of Phantasia. Many old man jokes were had.
    • Rowen from Tales of Xillia and Tales of Xillia 2 fits as well considering that he is 30 years older the oldest of the younger members of the party at 63. It helps though that he is a retired famous strategist.
  • Handled with unusual specificity in Final Fantasy VIII, where nearly all the principal characters are 17, except for Quistis, their instructor, who is 18.
    • Although, Laguna and his friends Kiros and Ward are in their 20s-30s and are shown to be very competent soldiers. Yes, even Laguna.
  • Final Fantasy X portrays the 35-year-old Auron as a grizzled veteran with graying temples (admittedly he is dead), Lulu is an experienced guardian of two previous pilgrimages despite being only 22, and Seymour Guado somehow manages to become the fantasy equivalent of a Cardinal despite being only 28. In the sequel, Lulu and Wakka are depicted as effectively retired even though neither one is older than 25.
  • While older people are never shown fighting, the Competence Zone in Final Fantasy IX skewers very young, shown best in regards to the six-year-old Cheerful Child and summoner Eiko. She is equally as capable as her older comrades in surviving and tackling dangerous situations head on, and garners her Precocious Crush on the sixteen-year-old Zidane with poetry, cooking, and quoting classic literature. To top it off, when two members of the group go into a Heroic BSoD, Zidane puts Eiko in charge. If Eiko was the same age as Garnet, Zidane's actual Love Interest, it would be highly likely that some serious shipping would ensue.
  • Final Fantasy VII is an aversion to this trope, with a cast with a broad spectrum of reasonably realistic ages; Yuffie is by far the youngest at 16 and is treated as a bit of a liability, while most of the cast are in their early 20s. Barret, Cid, and Reeve are in their 30s, and Red XIII is in his late 40s.
  • Final Fantasy XIV averts the trope as well in regards to the core Scion members with Y'shtola as the youngest at 23. There are exceptions in Alphinaud and Alisae since they're 16 when they join but their competence is explained away as being prodigies related to a great mage.
  • Mostly followed in the Golden Sun series (most party members are in the 15-18 age range, except for Kraden, who doesn't take part in battles), but averted in a few cases; Piers in Golden Sun: The Lost Age is hinted to be considerably older than he looks but refuses to give a straight answer about his age, and Eoleo in Dark Dawn is in his thirties.
  • Surprisingly averted in Infinite Space, considering how heavily anime-influenced this game is. Many of the "old" characters (including your crew members) are just as competent as the "young" ones, if not more.
  • Justified in TCT RPG as all the adults are being puppeted by the Others. Only children can actually think independently.
  • .hack averts the trope. Yes, a lot of the main characters are teens. However, in the first four games, we also have three adults (Helba, Lios, and Mistral), and one pre-teen kid (Wiseman), all of whom are thoroughly competent, and play major roles in the story.
  • The age range for human characters in Fire Emblem: Awakening is fairly normal, ranging from mid-teens to roughly mid to late 20s and Manakete characters with ages easily into the 1000s, albeit still having the appearance of young girls. However, Gregor, who could vaguely be in his mid 30s or 40s at the very most is often treated like an old man by the other characters. Likewise, Aversa is often called an old lady or hag despite being in her late 20s. However, this also applies to young characters as well, as the game's resident Child Mage (around his early teens) is treated as a child by his fellow comrades. The game also notably plays this trope straighter than previous entries in the Fire Emblem franchise, where middle-aged or even Old Soldiers were seen somewhat more often.
  • Shin Megami Tensei in general uses this trope. The only characters who are capable of dealing with the world-ending crises are a bunch of high-school students in their late teens. Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, the Devil Survivor duology, and Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey push the general maximum up to the mid-twenties; Zenkichi from Persona 5 Strikers is the oldest character with a confirmed age, in the ancient hinterlands of his 40s, while Ken Amada from Persona 3 is the youngest at a spry 10.
    • Persona 3 plays this straight in the case of the playable characters, none of whom are older than 18, but also averts this in that the few adults who are competent play major roles on the side.
    • Sequel Persona 4 plays it straight, however; only the teenage main characters seem to be able to solve the mystery in their town, while all the adults seem to be clueless.
    • Persona 5 zig-zags this. On one hand, the Phantom Thieves of Hearts are a bunch of high school students (and their cat) who are the only group capable of saving Japan from the evil Conspiracy. On the other hand, several of the Confidants who aid the Phantom Thieves in their endeavors are working adults, and Makoto's adult sister plays a vital role in helping the protagonist escape captivity and actually putting the Big Bad behind bars.

  • Ozy and Millie plays with this by featuring several very childish adults, in contrast to the very grown-up children it stars. However, that only makes up about half the cast. One of the main themes of the strip, as stated many times by its creator, is that maturity often has little to do with age.
  • A subversion of this serves as a primary plot point in Golden Age Of Adventurers. The four older adventurers really are past retirement age (and therefore supposedly not capable of really looking out for themselves, let alone going on adventures). However, for the most part they are very skilled at what they do and can get along just fine.
  • Averted in Homestuck, in which the main characters' mentors are increasingly revealed to be very capable and it's implied they had their own plan to stop Jack going on in the background. It takes Jack becoming a Physical God to overwhelm and kill them, but in fairness, he's perfectly capable of killing the heroes too (and has already).
  • Subverted with the Tower-climbing Regulars from Tower of God. They all appear to be in their late teens and early twenties, but in a weir case of aging, a 300 year-old girl can be the niece of a 18 year-old princess, yet they have about the same level of maturity.
  • Sleepless Domain: Since non-magical weaponry is effectively useless against the monsters and magical girls age out of their powers around age 18-20, teenage girls are the only ones who can do anything to defend the city.

    Western Animation 
  • One of the main thrusts of South Park is how the 3rd/4th grade main characters are more competent than adults because they have yet to be indoctrinated into various foolish aspects of adult American culture. Kids who are a few years older than the main cast are shown to be dominated by their adolescent hormones, while younger children are little more than babies.
  • The Life and Times of Juniper Lee has a mystical gift jump a generation. June and her brother are competent, her grandmother is competent, but her parents are clueless.
    • Which is almost identical to the setup in American Dragon: Jake Long, only swap the genders (Jake and his little sister, and his grandfather are dragons) and make one of the parents clueless (Jake's mother is aware of their family heritage). Once his dad finds out about everything, he becomes pretty competent, singlehandedly wiping out an army of shadow demons that even the whole dragon council was having trouble with.
  • Ditto with Hay Lin's family on W.I.T.C.H. — her grandmother is a Guardian, she's a Guardian, her parents are just clueless. The other parents on the show are decent but.. not stupid, per se, they're just fairly good parents that don't know their daughters are saving the world when they break curfew thanks to the Masquerade. If they were stupid, it would actually make things easier on the girls.
  • Codename: Kids Next Door takes the Competence Zone to extremes: anyone 13 or older is a threat to the Kids Next Door, and must have their memories of the organization erased. In this universe, unlike the real one, teenagers serve as loyal minions for adults. The show eventually subverted this in the episode "OP MAURICE."
    • Occasionally subverted. Especially when Hogie runs to his own mother for help dealing with The Common Cold. She proceeds to save the day
      • Alternately, one could say being a KND operative, current or former, is the competence zone.
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: another great kids' show featuring use of child soldiers in a genocidal global conflict. The main cast of teenagers range in (biological) age from 12 (Aang, Toph) to 16 (Zuko, maybe Jet?). Owing to many members of the intervening generation not being around, competence doesn't appear to pop back up until you start hitting the much older demographics.
    • Jet is about Zuko or Sokka's age, which isn't so bad until you realize he's been fighting the Fire Nation since he was much younger than the current cast of heroes, and has apparently gathered an entire following of children a la Peter Pan's Lost Boys. Smellerbee and Longshot are probably teenagers, but The Duke is 8. He seems to know a fair bit about explosives.
    • Averted with The Legend of Korra. Most of the cast is in the 16-18 range (Korra, Mako, Bolin, Asami), but then there's the older generation (Tenzin, Lin Bei Fong) who can kick some serious ass, and then there's the really young kids (Tenzin's kids; Jinora, Meelo, and Ikki) who can take out the Lieutenant and a squad of Chi-Blockers single-handedly. Rule of thumb is that if a character has a backstory, they're competent.
    • On the other hand, an Old Master is definitely out of the Competence Zone in the sequel. Zuko is still active, but is no match for the villainous Red Lotus, Katara doesn't fight at all, and while Toph is virtually godlike in her power, she can't keep it up for more than a single mission. Compare this to the first series, where Iroh is on the front lines for the entire series. This might just be degree of "old"; Iroh was in his sixties, but Team Avatar is in their eighties by the time they appear in Korra. In Last Airbender King Bumi (at a hundred and twelve) had the same problem as Toph; in the right situation he can win a battle by himself, but 90% of that is waiting for the right moment.
  • In Arthur, the adults are realistic enough, but fourth graders (a mere grade above Arthur and his friends) are portrayed as "tough big kids" who essentially act like teenagers and are often not too bright. This is heavily based on how Binky Barnes, who is their age, is portrayed in the books.
  • The Fairly OddParents! tends to play this pretty straight, with Timmy's parents being stupid and impulsive. However, Timmy comes to lampshade this during the event where he chases Vicky through various TV shows, all which also include incompetent adults, including a grown up, time travelling, secret agent version of himself.
  • Largely averted in Kim Possible. Our heroes are teenagers, but their allies and enemies include tween geniuses, adults ranging from scientists and law enforcement to Mad Scientists and Kim's vast network of favours, and a ninja toddler.
  • Lampshaded in the Adventure Time episode "Tree Trunks":
    Jake: "Finn can handle it: he's twelve."
  • On Goof Troop, it's taken for granted that 11-year-old boys will be significantly less insane than their fathers. Goofy is a Cloudcuckoolander who shows elements of being Too Dumb to Live (he manages to due mostly to dumb luck and being Made of Iron); his son Max is a clever Deadpan Snarker whose main intelligence problem is being a much milder Fearless Fool. Pete is an irrational Jerkass who never thinks any of his plans through and always ends up paying for them; his son PJ is the Only Sane Man... who always ends up paying for the plans he criticizes. Max and Pete are in the closest proximity for their sanity, but Max beats Pete in this regard without much trouble. Pete's wife Peg manages to defy the competence zone.
  • Played with in Young Justice. The main protagonists are teens (early twenties by Season 2), and are clearly shown to be nowhere near as strong and skilled as the adults in the Justice League, suggesting that they're barely not "too young". Despite this, the kids are the ones who deal with the Light's plans, and most of the time the Adults Are Useless, amidst the machinations of the villains. The protagonists point this out in the Season 2 finale, as Aqualad tells the Light that everything that Young Justice accomplished was because the Light dismissed the team as being the younger, weaker, less competent sidekicks of the Justice League.
  • Otto from Time Squad is both the only generally competent character and the only kid on the show.
  • Dipper and Mabel of Gravity Falls run afoul of Adults Are Useless constantly. In general, the only helpful people they encounter are preteens like themselves, and sometimes regular teenagers. The sole exception is Soos, who is a young adult, and often accompanies them on adventures. That is until it's revealed that Grunkle Stan knew about the supernatural all along. However, he's such a Manchild that Dipper often seems more mature by comparison.

    Real Life 
  • Any job description requiring sex appeal.
  • Olympic level gymnastics, particularly for women, who are considered to have had a remarkably long career if they're still competing at twenty-five. Few gymnasts ever compete longer than this; the wear and tear on the body is simply too much, particularly for those who have been competing at the elite level since they were twelve or thirteen. The sole exception to this is one Oksana Alexandrovna Chusovitina, a Living Legend in the sport who competed first for the Soviet Union, then the Unified Team, then for Uzbekistan, then for Germany, and then for Uzbekistan again. "Mama Chuso" won her first World title in 1991 and went to her first Olympic Games in 1992; as of 2014 she is still making the world championships on a nearly annual basis, won her most recent international medal in 2011 (silver on the vault), and has competed in every Olympics since Barcelona 1992. To put this in perspective, Chuso had won her first international title before most of her London 2012 competition had even been born. Gymnastics fans consider her the exception that proves the rule.
    • In the seventies and eighties, swimmers were on their prime in their late teens. Today the competence zone has expanded, and it is not uncommont to see swimmers in their early thirties in the Olympics.
  • Sports in general are like this, at least when compared to most other jobs. It's rare for any athlete to remain competitive past thirty-five, and outside of low-impact sports like golf and bowling, retiring before age 40 is common.
    • There are subversions. Goalkeeper is a unique position in a football team, which requires different skill-sets and necessarily restricts the player to one small section of the pitch. With less need for stamina or the physical strength to directly compete with other players, goalkeepers tend to remain in the top flight for a lot longer than other footballers. Two former England goalies - Gordon Banks and Peter Shilton - were still playing in the professional leagues in their fifties. Bruce Grobelaar (Zimbabwe and Liverpool) was still playing in the Premier League in his forties. This in a sport where players think of retiring in their early thirties.
  • To a certain extent, mathematics. Exceptions exist, and the increasing amount you have to learn is slowly forcing people to push the limits upwards, but historically the vast majority of mathematicians had their productive years before around 30.
  • To a certain extent, science. Most work, especially experimental or programming, is done by Ph.D. students or postdocs that are in the 20-30 bracket. Older researchers are not incompetent, but by that time they've generally been Kicked Upstairs and are in positions that are more management and bureaucracy than actual science, and they may not be up to date on the newest technology (having learned on equipment that's increasingly out of date).
  • The military, especially aviation. During the World Wars, pilots were almost invariably in their early twenties at most. There are mandatory retirement ages, and if an officer hasn't been promoted to a given rank by a given age, he never will be.
    • Subverted by Finnish ace of aces, Ilmari Juutilainen (94 kills). He was 31 when the Continuation War began 1941.
    • In the modern era, fighter pilots are on their prime during the years 30 to 45. Military aviation is today less sheer physical performance and more of decision-making.
  • Air Traffic Controllers (in the US at least) must be under 31 years of age when hired and must retire no later than age 56. An exception to the hiring age can be made for otherwise qualified retired military, but even they still have to retire at the 56 mark.

Zig-Zagged Examples:

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    Tabletop Games 
  • In Changeling: The Dreaming, characters are divided into three age brackets to represent pre-teens (Childlings), teen-to-early-twenties (Wilders), and past twenty five (Grumps). New characters derive three critical stats based on their age: Glamour, or Magic Points, Willpower, and Banality, the game's loss of magic power. Childlings not only have to deal with all the restrictions of being kids, but they have untenable low Willpower scores. However, since magic is fueled by imagination, a Childling has an unbelievable amount of Glamour as a starting character. Grumps are too Banal (which eliminates your character) and have very low Glamour, though at least they have a decent Willpower and won't have to quit the adventure because it's nap time. Wilders - either high school age or early twenties - offer the best trade-off. Their Banality and Glamour scores are better than Grumps and their Willpower scores are better than Childlings, plus The World of Darkness is not the kind of setting for Free-Range Children.
  • Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder adjust the ability scores of characters based on age, with physical scores falling as mental scores rise over time. As a result, characters who value mental scores more than physical scores actually are most competent when they are older, while physical characters are at their best young. There are exceptions such as class abilities and magic which can screw with your apparent age.
    • Also averted in that the classes do not allow characters to be created below a certain age in many editions. Generally, the more education the class seems to require (such as Wizard), the older a character must be at creation. The Kid Hero really doesn't exist barring Rule Zero.
    • This can lead to bizarre deviations from reality. Skills like "spot" and "listen" (combined into "perception" in Pathfinder) are based on mental stats. While that makes sense if everyone is in the same age group since it represents being good at picking out what's out of the ordinary, in a mixed age group you can only conclude that the senses get keener the older you are.
    • Averted in 5th edition, where the section on racial traits in the Player's Handbook states that you can play as a character of any age. It suggests that a particularly young or old character might have a lower Strength or Constitution score, and that a particularly old character might have a high Intelligence or Wisdom score, but doesn't require this.