The life chances of young people in Scotland: evidence review

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

Conclusion: key issues young people in Scotland are facing

This evidence review set out to examine what the available data tells us about the transition to adulthood for young people in Scotland today, and to identify any areas of concern for young people's life chances. Eight areas of potential concern have been identified. To conclude, we summarise each of these issues in turn, briefly describing the features of the problem, which groups of young people it affects, and the outcomes the problem may have for young people and society more generally.

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

The level of deposit as a percentage of income required for first time buyers in Scotland is relatively high. This has contributed to a large decrease in the proportion of younger households owning with a mortgage over the last decade. Low income and insecure work are additional barriers to the housing market for young adults. Debt and/or poor credit history may also make getting a mortgage difficult for some. Alongside this decline in owner occupation, there has been a substantial increase in the proportion of younger households living in the private rented sector, to the extent that this is now the most common tenure for these households. The cost of housing as a proportion of income for those who own with a mortgage is substantially lower than for those who are renting privately. The cost of private renting may also contribute to difficulties saving for a deposit.

The housing issues identified are likely to affect a wide range of young adults, although different groups will have different needs and preferences, and face different problems. Moreover, where housing is concerned the issues identified extend into the later 20s and early 30s. For low to moderate income young adults, the ability to buy their own home may be an issue, particularly for those who cannot afford a deposit and whose parents are not able to help. For those on low and/or insecure incomes there may be issues around access to social renting, the suitability of the private rental sector - in terms of cost, security and quality - and ability to pay the rent (especially for those with no family support). There are also specific issues for those with more complex housing needs such as disabled young people and care leavers.

Without being able to access suitable accommodation, young adults may continue to live with parents and be unable to transition fully to independence, or be at risk of homelessness for those without family support. Housing insecurity may also lead to an inability to build community ties. Moreover, if fewer young adults are able to buy their own home, there are broader implications for wealth accumulation and intergenerational wealth inequality.

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

Labour market changes - such as globalisation and technological change - have been identified as an underlying driver of inequality. While the Scottish employment rate has recovered since the recession, there has also been a growth in part time jobs, and increases in self-employment, insecure working, and underemployment. Young adults are especially affected by these shifts: underemployment and insecurity in the form of zero hour contracts and an increase in cycling between low paid, short term work and unemployment have been identified as issues. There is also a significant inequality in pay with regards to age. Young adults are overrepresented in low wage sectors such as retail and food services, which rarely offer career progression.

Less advantaged young adults, especially those with lower levels of educational attainment, are more likely to experience low paid, precarious work, and cycling between this and unemployment. Disabled adults have been found to experience pay gaps compared to those without disabilities. Despite generally higher educational attainment, minority ethnic adults are also more likely to be in low-paid work than white adults, and some minority ethnic groups face a pay gap compared to white groups. Women dominate low-pay sectors such as caring and leisure occupations.

The analysis suggests that young adults today struggle in the labour market in spite of being the most highly educated generation yet. There is evidence to suggest that young adults in the UK are more disadvantaged in the labour market than previous generations, in terms of unemployment, low pay and job quality. The concentration of young adults in low quality employment and their difficulty in getting jobs with reasonable security and prospects has potential implications for the sustainability of the economy, population health, and levels of poverty and inequality in Scotland.

3) For a significant minority of young adults labour market entry and labour market progression are major challenges

In addition to low quality work, labour market entry is also a concern for young adults, particularly those with lower educational attainment. While Scotland performs relatively well on youth employment rates internationally, unemployment rates for young adults in Scotland are consistently higher than those for other age groups and young adults bore the main impact of the most recent recession. There are concerns that labour market changes are leading to a growing divide between those with and without skills, and that those with low or no qualifications will be more disadvantaged than in previous generations as the demand for skills increases.

Some groups of young adults face additional barriers to the labour market. Compared with all young adults, those who are disabled face higher unemployment. It is suggested that a lack of practical support for disabled young adults underpins difficulties with labour market transitions. Young men have a higher risk of being unemployed. However, young women who leave school early with poor qualifications are likely to face worse labour market outcomes than young men with similar characteristics - this is related to caring responsibilities, and particularly early pregnancy and motherhood. Unemployment rates for minority ethnic adults are higher than for white adults.

There is a considerable body of evidence to suggest that being unemployed when young leads to a higher likelihood of long-term 'scarring' in later life in terms of pay, unemployment, life chances and health. These effects seem to be stronger for younger people and those with less school success. The exclusion of some groups of the population from the labour market is likely to lead to increasing inequality, with implications for future income, wealth and health.

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

Young people today are much more likely to continue in education, rather than move directly from school into employment as in the past. This means today's young people are more likely to have to negotiate increasingly complicated transitions into employment. This is particularly the case for those who are not going on to university as a first destination post-school. Young people from the most deprived areas are less likely to be participating in education, training or employment than those from the least deprived areas. They are more likely to go on to study at college and less likely to go on to university. 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.

Other forms of disadvantage also have an impact on young people's transitions. Disabled young people have a substantially lower rate of participation in education, training and employment than those who are not disabled. They are also almost twice as likely to be participating in further education. It is suggested 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. Young carers can experience difficulties balancing post-school education or employment with caring responsibilities. Young people leaving the care system are also at a disadvantage. Looked after children tend to leave school at younger ages and obtain lower qualification levels on average than all school leavers. They are subsequently less likely to go on to, and sustain, positive destinations after school.

Educational attainment and the success of initial post-school transitions have long-term effects on young people's future prospects. The level of qualification obtained has a significant impact on future outcomes: those with higher levels of qualification are more likely to be in work and higher paid. The research literature highlights that experiencing an unsuccessful transition into the labour market has long-term effects, including on future pay and unemployment. Those with lower education levels are more affected by unsuccessful initial transitions. Further, at a societal level, where post-school destinations and future career are strongly shaped by family background, this limits social mobility and contributes to a lack of diversity in many occupations.

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

Subject choice in further education and higher education, as well as in choice of MA is strongly gendered. Young men are over-represented in subjects such as, for example: construction, engineering and computing; and ICT; while young women are over-represented in areas such as health and social care, hairdressing and beauty, and education and training. 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. This contributes to the gender pay gap.

6) Educational attainment is persistently low for some groups of school leavers

As previously highlighted, educational attainment is a key driver of access to the labour market, and skills and qualifications have a significant impact on employment. As has been widely recognised, there is a persistent gap in educational attainment between school leavers in the most and least deprived areas of Scotland. There are also attainment gaps between school leavers with and without additional support needs, young men and young women, and looked after young people and those who are not looked after.

As underlined in the sections above, young adults with lower qualification levels are more likely to experience less successful post-school transitions and to be disadvantaged in the labour market. It has also been suggested that those with no and low qualifications face greater disadvantage in the labour market than previous generations. Labour market disadvantage has a broader impact on future life chances, health and wellbeing.

7) There is some evidence of growing mental health issues for young people, particularly young women

The proportion of young adults who self-reported to have ever self-harmed was much higher than for older age groups. The analysis suggests there may have been increases in the proportions of young adults self-reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety, and self-harm. In particular, the analysis raised some potential concerns regarding the mental wellbeing of young women. Young women reported lower levels of life satisfaction and wellbeing than young men. They were also more likely to exhibit signs of a possible psychiatric disorder and self-report higher levels of self-harm compared to young men and older age groups. The evidence indicates that this increase in mental health issues among young women is manifesting earlier in adolescence. In adults and adolescents, poorer mental health outcomes have found to be associated with greater socioeconomic disadvantage, although there is lack of data specifically on socio-economic disadvantage and mental health in young adults. Groups with a high risk of mental health issues include those with experiences of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and other adversity, for example care leavers and young carers.

Half of adult mental health problems start before the age of 14 and three quarters start before the age of 24. Poor mental health has an impact on longer-term health outcomes. The ability to engage in education and employment may also be impacted, which in turn may have long-term impacts on future prospects.

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

Rates of smoking, drinking, teenage pregnancy and offending have all declined amongst young people in Scotland over the last decade. However, alongside this overall decline, some risks have declined more slowly in the most deprived areas compared to the least deprived areas. In particular, young people living in the most deprived areas are at a higher risk of regular smoking, teenage pregnancy and spending time in custody compared to those in the least deprived areas. This pattern reflects broader inequalities in health across the whole population, which have been shown to be driven by structural inequalities in income. Moreover, smoking, teenage pregnancy and spending time in custody all have an adverse impact on young people's life chances, for example early parenthood has a significant negative impact on employment prospects and income, thereby further increasing inequality.


Email: Catriona Rooke,

Phone: 0300 244 4000 – Central Enquiry Unit

The Scottish Government
St Andrew's House
Regent Road

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