Rites of passage rewritten

6th November 1998 at 00:00
In the week of the Government's Green Paper on the family, Gill Jones warns of the pressures today's young people are under

Just when we think the generation gap has disappeared, all the evidence suggests the gulf between parents and their children is wider than ever. In just one generation, huge changes in employment patterns, education, the family and personal lifestyles have changed beyond recognition the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood.

Today's parents - whether they grew up in the permissive 1960s, the cynical 1970s or the selfish 1980s - have little idea of the pressures their own children now face. While media attention focuses on the visible problems - such as homelessness, offending, alcohol or drug abuse - little attention has been paid to the unprecedented numbers who are suffering from acute uncertainty and insecurity. In many ways, the business of growing up has become more painful than ever.

Older generations may remember a relatively simple transition to adulthood: leave school, get a job, find a steady "date", save up some money, then leave home to marry and start a family. These days, there is no defined route; young people have to find their own ways.

Nor are there any certain goals: adulthood no longer involves security in jobs, housing or family life. More than ever, growing up is a gamble, in what has been termed the "risk society". How equipped are parents or teachers to help today's youngsters? So much has changed.

The main changes have been in the transition from school to work. Between 1984 and 1995, the number of 16 to 24-year-olds in education rose from 1.4 million to 2.1 million. One in three 18-year-olds now goes on to higher education - three times as many as in 1970. Access to further and higher education is now much easier, to the historic advantage of a generation of young women.

However, students are far worse off money-wise than they were; increased drop-out rates from courses are mainly associated with financial difficulties.

At the same time, the number of young people in work is estimated to have fallen from 6.5 million in 1985 to under 4 million in 1997. Though partly explained by the increase in young people staying on in education, this dramatic fall is also a result of a collapse in the youth labour market. In today's society, those who cannot take up education and training opportunities have few other options.

A fundamental restructuring of industry, leading to a shift from manufacturing to the service sector, has resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs and apprenticeships traditionally taken up by young men. A big increase in part-time and temporary employment has meant that today's school-leavers are more likely to be in low-paid work than their predecessors even five or ten years ago.

More jobs now require qualifications, and the "stepping stone" jobs, which used to offer routes through work for the unqualified school-leaver, seem to have disappeared.

Youth unemployment, at around 15 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds, is higher than among older age groups. Those most at risk are teenage men, but there is also regional and ethnic variation. The estimated number of 16 to 17-year-olds in "status zero" (not in education, training or employment) rose from around 100,000 in the early 1990s to around 160,000 by 1996. Adulthood cannot therefore be delayed until people get a good job.

Although paths into and through employment may be blocked, young people could still be living with partners or have children. Moving away from the parental home, and establishing a family of their own - the second transition path - has also become more complex and extended.

In the past 20 years, cohabitation has become a majority practice, mainly as a trial marriage and among childless couples. As a result, between 1971 and 1990, the median ages at first marriage have increased from 21.4 years to 24. 9 among women, and from 23.4 to 26.8 years among men. Married women are now likely to delay childbirth until their late 20s.

While there continue to be frequent moral panics about teenage pregnancy, the situation has eased. In 1996, there was a total of 45,000 live births to teenage girls in England and Wales - almost half the total of 83,000 in 1971.

But, in other respects, the bewildering pace of change since the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s has made choosing a path to adulthood harder. Sexual intercourse before the age of 19 is now the norm for both men and women. Lesbian and gay partnerships have become more common and less stigmatised. Childlessness is also increasing: one in five women is childless at the age of 35, compared with one in ten a generation or so ago. So "adulthood" no longer depends on getting married and having children.

The third transition path, setting up home, starts with leaving the parental household. Around one in ten have left home by the age of 18, and around one-third have left by the age of 19. In the early 1980s, the median age at which young people first left home was 20 years for women and 21.9 years for men.

Instead of leaving home in order to marry, more and more are leaving to go on courses or to take up jobs. Leaving home has taken on a new significance for young people, and has become a major transition step. But leaving home has also become a process and many leave home more than once.

Because more single people are leaving home, there are more peer and one-person households. The demand for housing for young single people has increased. Housing for single young people is concentrated at the bottom end of the private rented sector, and conditions are often poor.

There is a shortage of appropriate housing that young people can afford. As a result, there has been a dramatic increase in youth homelessness, estimated at 53,000 in 1978 and 146,000 in 1990.

Despite the difficulties, these changes - an extended education and delayed entry into work, setting up a home and starting a family - clearly benefit many young people. But the growing numbers in "status zero", or without homes, are evidence of increased polarisation and social exclusion. There are some very unhappy young people around. Suicide rates have more than doubled among young men in the past 20 years. Youth is also the period in life when alcohol consumption, drug use and criminal offending peak.

Life has been made harder still because youth incomes have fallen in comparison with those of adults. Young men's wages are now around 50 per cent of male adult wages and young women's around 61 per cent of adult female wages, compared with 63 per cent and 72 per cent respectively in 1977.

The past two decades have also seen the withdrawal or erosion of welfare and housing benefits, student grants, and training allowances. The new minimum wage legislation is age structured, and so will further ensure that younger people remain worse off than older people.

What are the implications of all these changes? In practice, age is no longer an appropriate indicator of need. Youth incomes need to be subsidised, but there are young people who cannot turn to their parents for help. Parents and guardians may be unable or unwilling to provide money or a home. Around one-third of homeless young people have recently been in local authority care.

At local level, the uncertainties and risks now facing the young must be addressed while they are at school, so that they will know who to turn to for information or help when they need it. Their parents may not be the most appropriate people to advise them about the current state of housing, jobs, training or welfare benefits as their knowledge may be out of date. The role for well-informed teachers may be to find ways to pass their knowledge on to parents as well as pupils.

At national level, the policy solution is surely not for legislation to force parents to accept more financial and moral responsibility. We do not yet know nearly enough about how young people are responding to the extension of their dependence, or how parents feel about it.

Without research evidence, legislation in this area would be at best speculative and at worst damaging to family life. The last thing we want to do is to make the business of growing up even harder.

Dr Gill Jones is deputy director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge. This article draws on many published sources, including New Earnings Surveys (1977, 1987 and 1997) and Social Trends 28 (1998), both published by the Office of National Statistics.

Further Reading

* Furlong, A. and Cartmel, F. (1997). Youth and Social Change. Open University Press.

* Jones, G. (1995). Leaving Home. Open University Press.

* Utting, D. (1995). Family and Parenthood. Rowntree Foundation

* Kiernan, K., Land H. and Lewis, J. (1998). Lone Parenthood.

* Williamson, H. (1997). Youth and Policy: Contexts and Consequences. Aldershot, Ashgate.

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