The life chances of young people in Scotland: evidence review

Evidence review commissioned by the First Minister's Independent Advisor on Poverty and Inequality.

Executive summary

'Shifting the Curve', the first report by the First Minister's Independent Advisor on Poverty and Inequality, recommended that the Scottish Government commission a wide ranging literature review of the research concerning young people's life chances. This report takes forward that recommendation by reviewing what we know about the transition to adulthood in Scotland. The review focuses primarily on 'young adults' aged 16 to 24, and their transition from school to adulthood. However, recognising that the foundations for this transition are laid earlier in the school years, outcomes for 'early adolescence' (age 11 to 15) are also considered. The transition to adulthood for young people today - finding stable employment, setting up one's own home and forming a family - is seen as complex, non-linear and taking longer to complete.

Life chances for young people in Scotland today

The first section of the report considers what we know about the life chances of young people in Scotland across the following broad topics: poverty, wealth and financial capability; housing circumstances; employment and labour market outcomes; education and training; and health and wellbeing.

The poverty rate for young adults (16-29) in Scotland in 2015/16 was higher than for other groups of adults. Younger households are more likely than older households to not manage well financially, to have no savings and to have much lower wealth. To some extent, this is to be expected at this life stage: younger people tend to have lower earnings, as they are more likely to be in entry level jobs, and they have also simply had less time to accumulate wealth. However, there is evidence that wealth has been distributed away from younger people in the UK, and that a reduction in house ownership among young people is key to this.

Since the millennium, there has been a shift towards younger households living in the private rented sector or with their parents rather than owning with a mortgage. The evidence suggests that the size of deposit required has been the primary barrier to owner-occupation, rather than the cost of servicing a mortgage. Rising house prices through some of this period, along with low pay, insecure work and difficulty accumulating wealth, have exacerbated this barrier to the housing market for younger households. While the flexibility of private renting is attractive to some groups, the insecurity is problematic for others, affordability is an issue, and low-income households may be especially vulnerable in the private rental sector.

Being unemployed when young leads to a higher likelihood of long-term 'scarring' in later life in terms of employment, pay, life chances and health. The literature also highlights that working lives are commonly beginning later, as young people stay in education for longer, and often involve having a variety of jobs before settling into long-term careers. Youth employment rates in Scotland compare relatively well internationally. However, unemployment is higher among young adults compared to older working age adults, and young adults' employment was particularly affected by the recession. Young adults are more likely to experience low quality employment, including low pay and insecure work. Moreover, being better qualified is less of a guarantee of better-paid work than in the past. There is evidence to suggest that a structural level change is happening, where young adults today are experiencing disadvantage in the labour market in a way that is new to the current generation. There is also a risk that those with low or no qualifications will be more disadvantaged than previous generations, as the demand for skills increases.

While education is less of a guarantee of quality employment than it once was, educational attainment is still a key driver of access to the labour market. Levels of attainment of school leavers have generally been improving in Scotland. Results for literacy and numeracy in the broad general education phase, however, declined slightly in the most recent surveys. Looking at post-school transitions, school staying on rates have improved, and the proportion of school leavers classed as being in a 'positive destination' has increased. Slightly under a quarter of school leavers moved into further education in 2014/15, while just over a third moved into higher education, the majority at university.

As would be expected, young adults generally report better physical health than older age groups. Mental health indicators for children, young people and adults in Scotland have been generally stable over the past decade. However, 16-24 year olds are more likely than older age groups to self-report having ever self-harmed. Mental wellbeing is found to deteriorate with age during early adolescence. In international comparisons of young people's health and wellbeing, Scotland's relative performance also weakens throughout the early secondary phase across many indicators. In terms of risky health behaviours, rates of tobacco and alcohol use have fallen among young adults and early adolescents in recent years. Rates of teenage pregnancy and youth offending have also declined over the last decade.

The impact of disadvantage and protected characteristics on life chances

The second section of the report explores what the available evidence tells us about how young people's life chances are shaped by area deprivation and other forms of disadvantage, and protected characteristics.


Inequality of caring responsibilities impacts on women's experience of work from early adulthood. Economic inactivity rates for young women in Scotland are substantially higher than those for young men (while young men have higher unemployment rates). A gender pay gap exists from early in working life, because women are more likely to be in low-paid, low quality work. Continued gender segregation in subjects studied at school and beyond is associated with gender segregation in the labour market, with 'feminised' sectors tending to be low paid.

There is a gender gap in educational attainment, with girls outperforming boys at most stages. Overall, young women are slightly more likely to be participating in education, training and employment than young men. Young women are more likely to be participating in education, and particularly higher education, while a higher proportion of young men are in employment. The literature finds that young women who leave school early with poor qualifications are likely to face worse labour market outcomes than young men with similar characteristics.

Young women report lower levels of life satisfaction and wellbeing than young men. They are also more likely to exhibit signs of a possible psychiatric disorder and self-report higher levels of self-harm. The evidence indicates that this increase in mental health issues among young women manifests earlier in adolescence. Analysis of data for adolescents found that, while overall mental health and wellbeing scores have remained fairly constant over time, 15 year old girls report much poorer mental health and wellbeing than other groups.

Young people from deprived areas

School staying on rates and levels of attainment are strongly patterned by area deprivation, although the gaps between the most and least deprived have decreased slightly in recent years. The gap in educational attainment starts in the early years and widens at each stage of the education system. But there is evidence that schools can make a major difference in children's progress. Those who live in more deprived areas are less likely to enter positive destinations than those from less deprived areas, although the gap has been closing in recent years.

Young people from the most deprived areas are more likely to go on to study at college and less likely to go on to university than those from the least deprived areas. In addition, those who do go to university are less likely to go to more prestigious universities. Young people from the most deprived areas are also more likely to experience fragmented post-school transitions than those from the least deprived areas: they are less likely to stay on at school, and more likely to experience multiple post-school transitions, to be unemployed when they leave school, or to move into a short-term training programme.

Young people in the most deprived areas fare worse on several aspects of health and wellbeing. Among adults and adolescents, poorer mental health is associated with greater socioeconomic disadvantage. There is also a strong correlation between deprivation and tobacco use and teenage pregnancy.


Unemployment rates for working age adults from 'Indian', 'Pakistani/Bangladeshi' and 'Black/Black British' groups are higher than for 'White' groups. Research suggests that minority ethnic people with good qualifications face greater barriers to finding work which matches their qualifications, compared with the majority white population. Minority ethnic groups are also more likely to be in low-paid work than 'White' groups, and some minority ethnic groups face a pay gap compared to 'White' groups. Pupils from most minority ethnic groups have higher educational attainment than pupils from 'White' groups. Minority ethnic young people have a higher rate of participation in education, training and employment than the national average. They are more likely to continue in education, particularly higher education, than their 'White' counterparts, and less likely to pursue work-based vocational training.


Compared with all young adults, those who are disabled are more likely to be unemployed. Disabled adults also experience pay gaps compared to those without disabilities. Research finds that, even when other factors such as qualification levels are taken into account, disabled adults are more likely to be workless than non-disabled adults. Pupils with additional support needs have lower educational attainment levels than those without additional support needs. Disabled young people have a substantially lower rate of participation in education, training or employment than those who are not disabled. And research finds that disabled young people are more likely to be offered a more limited range of education and training opportunities than other young people, often with inaccurate assumptions made about capabilities.

Caring responsibilities

Disability and ill health also have an impact on young people's life chances through caring responsibilities. Of those aged 16-24, 9% of young men and 12% of young women are estimated to be carers. Fewer carers report having good health, compared with non-carers, and the more care someone provides, the less likely they are to report good health. Young carers (aged under 25) are more likely to report having a long-term condition or disability than non-carers. Although there appear to be wellbeing benefits for those caring for up to 4 hours per week, unpaid caring is a significant predictor of poor mental wellbeing and the presence of possible psychiatric disorder. Young carers are more likely to report having a mental health condition compared with those who are not carers.

Care experience

There is evidence of particularly poor outcomes for young people who are 'looked after' or 'care leavers'. Care leavers are at a higher risk of experiencing long term unemployment or fractured employment routes. Young people leaving care are also overrepresented in the homeless population. Looked after young people tend to have lower levels of educational attainment than those who are not looked after. These differences are, in part, linked to the fact that looked after young people tend to leave school at younger ages. Looked after children are less likely to go on to positive destinations than school leavers in general, particularly higher education. Looked after children and care leavers generally experience poorer health than their peers. Young female care leavers are more likely to experience early pregnancy than those who are not care leavers. A third of young offenders identified as having been in care at some point in their life.

Conclusion: key issues young people in Scotland are facing

The review concludes by identifying eight areas of potential concern for the life chances of today's young people:

1. an increasing proportion of young adults are living in the private rental sector or with their parents, and fewer are able to save for a deposit to buy their own home

2. young adults are particularly likely to be in low quality employment compared to older age groups and to past generations

3. for a significant minority of young adults labour market entry and labour market progression are major challenges

4. young people, particularly those not going directly to university, are having to negotiate increasingly complicated transitions from school into employment

5. there is continued gender segregation in subjects studied during education and training, and in the labour market

6. educational attainment is persistently low for some groups of school leavers

7. there is some evidence of growing mental health issues for young people, particularly young women

8. the persistence of health inequalities and slower declines in rates of certain risky health behaviours in the most deprived areas compared to the least deprived areas.


Email: Catriona Rooke,

Phone: 0300 244 4000 – Central Enquiry Unit

The Scottish Government
St Andrew's House
Regent Road

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