The transition from youth to adulthood in modern Britain is a very gradual one, spanning a period from 15-24 years of age if we take the United Nations definition of youth and longer in some cases.
This gradual transition isn’t natural, it is a consequence of structural changes associated with the shift to postmodern society and government policies which have largely been a reaction to these societal level changes.
There are three main transitions associated with moving from youth to adulthood (following Furlong and Cartmel, 2006):
- The transition from school to work: from compulsory GCSEs through further and possibly higher education or training to full time paid employment.
- The domestic transition away from one’s parental family to establishing a primary relationship with one’s own intimate partner
- The housing transition which involves moving from the family home with parents to living alone or with a partner.
The period of youth involves a lot more than just these three transitions, it is also a time when one ‘grows into’ or finds one’s own independent self-identity.
Transitions to adulthood involve young people in making more choices today than ever, but these are not necessarily entirely free choices for every individual: social class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and locality can all limit opportunities and make certain transitional choices for some impractical, undesirable or just impossible.
(For example if you fail your GCSES, you probably aren’t going to be able to choose to become a medical doctor!)
Structural changes affecting youth transitions
Economic globalisation since the 1970s have resulted in significant changes in the labour market in the UK. Cheaper labour costs abroad have resulted in manufacturing moving to countries such as China and India and meant a decline in the number of factory based jobs for life which many working class youth could have expected to go into.
Instead of jobs for life young people today are facing the prospect of being portfolio workers, and can expect to change jobs many times throughout their working lives, and this is especially true early on in their careers. There are also many more informal gig economy jobs in the service sector which are often filed by young people.
As a result the experience of work today is a lot more fragmented and a lot more uncertain than it used to be.
Cultural globalisation has meant a huge increase in both the amount of knowledge, information and leisure products purely for entertainment and the consequences of this are that young people have to make choices about what knowledge and products to consume.
In education this means relying on advice to make choices at 16, 18 and 21 if you pursue the ‘standard’ school, further education, then higher education route, but even that is a choice, alongside vocational options such as apprenticeships.
Outside of education there is a fantastic array of leisure options available… music, style, travel, who to watch and follow on instagram, gaming, sports, so many options to shape one’s identity and also possible routes to making money if you position yourself well.
The cost of housing in the UK is also a factor, not helped by the recent cost of living crisis and increase in interest rates: this makes the prospect of living at home with one’s parents a financial necessity for many which can shape the experience of youth.
Finally there is the continuous reality of global crises: if it’s not a financial crisis (2008, 2022-23) it’s a pandemic, if it’s not a pandemic, it’s a war or wars, and even without any of these we’ve got an ongoing environmental crisis, and on top of this a political elite in Britain that seems incapable of managing these problems.
All of these structural changes mean that young people today face a lot of more uncertainty but also a lot more choice, and (following Giddens) they have to be a lot more reflexive: finding one’s way in the transition from youth to adulthood involves a lot of reflection, constructing one’s identity becomes a constant project which requires constant effort.
Society also becomes a lot more individualised. Experts (for example careers advisors) and ‘self proclaimed not really experts’ on YouTube may well offer advice but it’s on the individual to make their own choices in life. There are no clear, objective right decisions that anyone can make, individuals have to decide what is right for them, and this means we are operating under conditions of risk and uncertainty (following Ulrich Beck).
In the postmodern transition from youth to adulthood you are free (within reason) to choose your life course and identity, but you also have to accept the consequences of bad decisions that you make: that’s on you!
Government policy and youth transitions
Government policies today prevent youth from transitioning into adulthood before 18 and encourage youth to stay in a state of semi-dependence on their parents until their early 20s:
- full time education in school is compulsory until the age of 16, and while 17-18 year olds are allowed to move into full-time work this has to have a training element and so will have a very low wage, which will be insufficient for independent living.
- Free provision of education for 16-19 year olds encourages youth to stay on in full-time further education until 18.
- The national minimum wage is teired by age so that you cannot earn the full wage until you are 23.
- Under 25s are entitled to less Universal Credit than those aged 25 or over: £290 a month compared to £370.
The transition to adulthood as a journey
In the 1960s and 1970s young people boarded trains which set off for different destinations, largely shaped by social class. and gender, and once on these trains they had limited opportunities to change direction because they were already on set tracks.
However, while on these trains the occupants tended to bond with people similar to them (based on class and gender) and could work together to change change the direction they were going if they didn’t like the look of the destination.
The above analogy describes typical youth transitions in the 1960s and 1970s: predictable career paths and class solidarity, but these days are now gone.
Today’s youth get into cars and the driver of the car has no set destination because there are no rails, there is a complex road network and the drivers. of these cars (which are more diverse than the old trains) have to make decisions as they go which will affect the final destination.
Moreover, not all cars are equal: some are much better designed to stay the course, others will crash off and end up with shorter journeys than initially intended.
The later analogy describes the more diverse and uncertain routes young people must negotiate between further education, higher education, and early stage careers.
The school to work transition
Further education has greatly expanded since the 1970s and it is now expected that everyone will stay in education or training until at least age 18, and government policy encourages this by setting the minimum wage for under 18s at a very low rate and making it extremely difficult for under 18s to claim welfare benefits, and also by making education free until the age of 19 (allowing for some flexibility for those who fail GCSEs).
There is also a lot more choice of courses available in 16-19 education, with vocational options such as apprenticeships having expanded greatly over the last two decades, since the year 2000.
On top of this around 50% of the UK population now go on to higher education, usually in university, financed through student loans for both maintenance and fees.
This means the normal time of educational transition to full time paid employment last up until at least age 21 in most cases, longer given that it can take several months to find a graduate job, and indeed many graduates have. to settle for non-graduate jobs for a year or more before finding their way in to a career of their choice.
While there is a lot of diversity within this transition, social class and gender still have an impact.
The domestic and housing transition
This is rarely a straightforward process of people moving out once and into their own home or with their partner for the first time.
It is increasingly common for young people to move into intermediary households in young adulthood, such as student accommodation, and then move back in with their parents when they graduate for a year or more, and then possibly into their own first home as independent adults.
There has been a recent trend towards young adults staying living with their parents for longer. At age 23 60% of males and 44% of females still live with their parents.
Some couples will also go through the unfortunate experience of breaking up and then having to move back into the parental home afterwards.
None of this is helped by the increase in property prices. Only 41% of 18-35 year olds own their own homes today, down from 67% in the 1990s.
Conclusions and evaluations
There is a lot more diversity within youth transitions to adulthood in postmodern society, which reflects the increase in choices that young people have to make.
However this isn’t simply a matter of individuals freely choosing… following late modernism they HAVE to make choices under conditions of uncertainty: they are compelled to choose and face the consequences of any bad decisions they make.
Class and gender continue to shape transitions, especially social class: the middle classes have a lot more opportunities than the working classes.
Government policies also encourage youth to remain in state of at least semi-dependence on their parents until well into their 20s.
This material is mainly relevant to the culture and identity module, normally taught as part of the first yer in A-level sociology.
To return to the homepage – revisesociology.com
Furlong and Cartmel (2006) Young People and Social Change: New Perspectives.
Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.
Gov.Uk National Minimum Wage
Gov.UK Universal Credit