The life chances of young people in Scotland: evidence review

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


'Shifting the Curve'[2], the report by the First Minister's Independent Advisor on Poverty and Inequality Naomi Eisenstadt, recommended that the Scottish Government commission a wide ranging literature review of the research concerning young people's life chances. Shifting the Curve underlined that young adulthood is one of the most challenging periods in the life cycle, where parents have less influence, peers become increasingly important and the likelihood of risky behaviour is high. It argued that, while there has been considerable progress in understanding how to improve outcomes in early childhood, there has not been a corresponding focus on what challenges adolescents and young adults are facing and how to support them during this important transitional period. There is a need to explore what issues young people in Scotland today are facing and 'what works' for adolescents and young adults. The Independent Advisor on Poverty and Inequality has commissioned the Scottish Government to undertake this review of young adults' life chances, which provides the first step in this process by examining what we know about the transition to adulthood in Scotland.

What do we mean by 'young people'?

Terms such as 'young people', 'adolescence' or 'youth' refer to the stage in life between childhood and adulthood, although definitions vary in terms of the specific age. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations (UN) define 'youth' as being between the ages of 15 and 24 years.[3, 4] The WHO defines 'young people' as between the ages of 10 and 24 and 'adolescence' as between age 10 and 19.[4] This review focuses primarily on the transition from school to adulthood; however, we recognise that the foundations for this transition are laid earlier in the school years, and therefore outcomes for 'early adolescence' - the early secondary school phase - are also considered. We use the terms 'young people' to refer to age 11 to 24; 'young adults' to refer to age 16 to 24 and 'early adolescence to age 11 to 15, unless otherwise stated. Specific age ranges discussed are also shaped by what is used in the main data sources.

Youth transitions

Youth is a transitional period, which has been characterised as a journey towards adulthood that involves the completion of three major milestones: leaving education and entering employment; moving from the parental home to one's own home; and forming a family.[5, 6] It is generally accepted that during the 1960s and early 1970s transitions were usually direct and linear: most young people moved straight from school into employment, with a small proportion going on to university; while domestic transitions usually involved marriage and setting up a home of one's own. The literature on youth transitions argues that for young people today these transitions are complex, nonlinear and the three milestones are taking increasing amounts of time to complete. [5-7] Statistics show a large rise in participation in higher education since the early 70s, while the average age at first marriage and at which individuals become parents has been increasing.[5]

The literature also suggests that there has been a growing divergence in the nature of the school-to-work transitions between young people from different socioeconomic backgrounds.[8] Some writers have characterised this as a growing separation between 'slow' and 'fast' transitions: young people who can afford to continue in education take a slower route into the labour market by spending longer in education and delaying their adulthood; young people from less privileged backgrounds are more likely to take a faster route, leaving full-time education at a younger age, entering the labour market and assuming adult roles earlier.[9]

Overview of the report

The report now considers what we know about the life chances of young people in Scotland across the following broad topics for young adults and early adolescence (where appropriate):

  • poverty, wealth and financial capability
  • housing circumstances
  • employment and labour market outcomes
  • education and training, including educational attainment in school and post-school transitions
  • health and wellbeing, including mental health, risky health behaviours and youth offending.

The analysis is based on the most recent Scottish Government statistics, alongside relevant academic and grey literature. Section 2 provides background information on the education system in Scotland in order to better understand how young people's school education and post-school transitions are structured. Section 3 explores outcomes for all young people in Scotland across the above topic areas, and then Section 4 examines how young people's life chances are patterned by deprivation and other forms of disadvantage, and protected characteristics. This section considers evidence on outcomes in relation to: area deprivation, gender, ethnicity, disability, caring responsibilities, and having been 'looked after'. Finally, the conclusion presents a summary of the key problems today's young people are facing in their transitions to adulthood, based on the evidence presented.


Email: Catriona Rooke,

Phone: 0300 244 4000 – Central Enquiry Unit

The Scottish Government
St Andrew's House
Regent Road

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