TIME Cover: Meet the Twixters

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New York – Social scientists are beginning to realize that a permanent shift has taken place in the way we live our lives. Whereas in the past people moved from childhood to adolescence and from adolescence to adulthood, today there is a new, intermediate phase along the way, TIME’s Lev Grossman reports in this week’s cover story (on newsstands Monday, January 17). The years from 18 until 25 and even beyond have become a distinct and separate life stage, a strange, transitional never-never land between adolescence and adulthood in which people in their 20s stall for a few extra years, putting off the iron cage of adult responsibility that constantly threatens to crash down on them. They’re betwixt and between.

Meet the Twixters: Twixters not kids anymore, but they’re not adults either. Everybody knows a few of them—full-grown men and women who still live with their parents, who dress and talk and party as they did in their teens, hopping from job to job and date to date, having fun but seemingly going nowhere. Ten years ago, we might have called them Generation X, or slackers, but those temporary labels don’t quite fit anymore. This isn’t just a trend, a temporary fad or a generational hiccup. This is a much larger phenomenon, of a different kind and a different order, TIME reports.

Is this Good or Bad? Some of the sociologists, psychologists and demographers who study the twixters actually see this new life stage as a good thing. They’re not lazy slackers, the argument goes, they’re reaping the fruit of decades of American affluence and social liberation. This new period is a chance for young people to savor the pleasures of irresponsibility, search their souls and choose their life paths. But more historically and economically minded scholars see it differently. They are worried that twixters aren’t growing up because they can’t. Those researchers fear that whatever cultural machinery used to turn kids into grownups has broken down, that society no longer provides young people with the moral backbone and the financial wherewithal to take their rightful places in the adult world, TIME reports.

Debt is Major Factor: While colleges scramble to get their students ready for real-world jobs, they are charging more for what they deliver. Debt is one of the major factors that keeps twixters from settling down and growing up. Thirty years ago, most financial aid came in the form of grants, but now the emphasis is on lending, not on giving. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, recent college graduates owe 85% more in student loans than their counterparts did a decade ago. (That is to say nothing of the credit-card companies that bombard freshmen with offers for cards students then cheerfully abuse. Demos, a public-policy group, says credit-card debt for Americans 18 to 24 more than doubled from 1992 to 2001.) The longer it takes to pay off those loans, the longer it takes twixters to achieve the financial independence that’s crucial to attaining an adult identity, not to mention the means to get out of their parents’ house, TIME reports.

‘Emerging Adults’: Jeffrey Arnett, a developmental psychologist at the University of Maryland, favors using “emerging adulthood” for this new demographic group, and the term happens to be the title of his new book on the subject. His theme is that the twixters are misunderstood. It’s too easy to write them off as lazy, overgrown children, he argues. Rather, he suggests, they’re actually doing important work to get themselves ready for adulthood. “This is the one time of their lives when they’re not responsible for anyone else or to anyone else,” Arnett says. “So they have this wonderful freedom to really focus on their own lives and work on becoming the kind of person they want to be.”

Half of Americans in mid-20s Earn Enough to Support a Family: Timothy Smeeding, a professor of economics at Syracuse University, found that only half of Americans in their mid-20s earn enough to support a family, and in TIME’s poll only half of those ages 22 to 29 considered themselves financially independent. According to Michigan’s Schoeni, Americans ages 25 to 26 get an average of $2,323 a year in financial support from their parents. (See separate release for TIME poll numbers)

How Parents Can Help: Dr. Mel Levine is the author of Ready or Not, Here Life Comes, which examines how parents and schools can better prepare adolescents for the transition to adult life, contributes his advice to parents. He says parents can do a lot to ensure a safe landing in early adulthood for their kids. Even if a job’s starting salary seems too meager to satisfy an emerging adult’s need for rapid gratification, the transition from school to work can be less of a setback if the start-up adult is ready for the move. He offers a few measures, drawn from his book, that parents can take to prevent what he calls “work-life unreadiness.” His tips to parents include helping kids figure out who they are, talking about the future on a regular basis, building kids’ work skills, placing time limits on leisure activities, and helping kids develop coping strategies.

TIME’s package is on TIME.com at: www.time.com

Contact: Ty Trippet, 212-522-3640, Kim Noel, 212-522-3651