Young people born in the 1970s – the so-called ‘Generation X’ – are better educated and earn more money on average than their counterparts who were raised in the 1960s. Yet they are more prone to depression and have experienced a widening jobs and income gap between those with good qualifications and those who have none.
Findings about the way life has changed for young people in the past 20 years emerge from a unique study comparing results from two of the biggest surveys ever conducted of growing up in Britain. The research, for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, compares results from the National Child Development Study that has followed more than 10,000 children born in single week during 1958 with those for the similar-sized 1970 Cohort Study.
Young people in the earlier ‘cohort’ reached their mid-twenties as Britain struggled to emerge from recession in the early 1980s. By 1995, when those born in 1970 were the same age, the country had come through a second recession, but youth unemployment was declining less rapidly than for older age groups.
Researchers from the Institute of Education at London University and the University of Warwick Institute for Employment Research compared data collected from the two groups of young people between the ages of 16 and 26. They found that:
The authors conclude that there are important lessons for today’s policy makers in the comparison between the transition to adult life experienced by the two age groups, 12 years apart. In particular, they argue that socially disadvantaged young people aged 15 to 25 need help and support that goes beyond the ‘New Deal’ training and employment programmes.
Prof. John Bynner, Director of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education and a co-author of the report, said: “These results reinforce the view that the route to full-time employment has become more precarious in the past 25 years. The relatively secure niches in jobs or apprenticeships that still existed for school-leavers in the mid-1970s had given way to a variety of low-prestige training experiences and unemployment by the mid-1980s, leading to a less assured position in the adult labour market.
“Even if many of the young people born in 1958 became unemployed in the subsequent recessions they had basic work experience and skills to help them find another job. Many more of the young people born in 1970 stayed on in education and gained qualifications, but those who left at the minimum age faced a future that was more uncertain and – on the evidence concerning mental health – left them more prone to depression.”
Prof. Peter Elias of the Institute for Employment Research at Warwick, a co-author of the report, said: “The continuing and widening disparity between young people who benefit from the expansion of higher education and those who do not is disturbing. There is no easy policy answer to the growing polarisation we see in the youth labour market, although the ‘New Deal’ and other more recent policies that tackle social and economic disadvantage, such as the ConneXions programme and Educational Maintenance Grants, are a step in the right direction. We need to look afresh at the raft of initiatives since 1997 and refocus attention on the significant number of young people for whom expansion of higher education is not a solution.”