Millennials who chose an apprenticeship over university are just as happy with their lives, study finds

26 January 2017

Twenty-somethings who pursued vocational training rather than university report being just as satisfied with their lives, according to new research.

Researchers from the UCL Institute of Education and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine examined information on more than 9,500 young people living in England, who were born in 1989-90 and are being followed by a study called Next Steps. They found that there was no ‘right way’ to transition into adult life. Instead, young people followed a range of viable paths after completing compulsory schooling at age 16.

Forty-five per cent of young people went into higher education, and a similar proportion – 42 per cent – entered the labour market.

Just over a third moved quickly into work after finishing school, with some continuing their studies for a limited period of time before doing so. Roughly 6 per cent pursued vocational training before getting a job.

At age 20, the young people were asked how satisfied they were with how their lives had turned out so far. There were no significant differences between those at university, those in apprenticeships or those in work.

Nearly 13 per cent of young people spent prolonged periods of time not in education, employment or training (NEET) after they finished school. They were the least satisfied with their lives at age 20.

The authors suggested that work may offer an opportunity to feel valued, to belong and to make a contribution for young people who do not go to university. However, if young people struggle to find meaningful and challenging work, it can be detrimental to their wellbeing.

Young people’s paths took a different turn if they faced multiple socioeconomic risks, including growing up in a family where the parents had little education, the gross household income was less than £10,400 per year, or where none of the parents were working.

At age 14, young people facing the most risks had slightly lower expectations of going to university, and less confidence in their academic ability than their more privileged peers. They also tended to be less engaged with school at this age.

By the time they finished school, young people from disadvantaged families were more likely than their better-off peers to go straight into work, or to end up being NEET. Moreover, living in a deprived neighbourhood increased the likelihood of going into vocational training instead of higher education.

Interestingly, disadvantaged young people were at higher risk of being NEET if they felt they were very academically able. This was true regardless of how well they had actually done at school. The authors suggested this might point to a ‘dark’ side of high self-confidence for young people who struggle to overcome the constraints of their upbringing.

Disadvantaged young people who had expected to apply to university tended to stay on at school at least for a short period of time after age 16, before ultimately going into work. The authors suggested that despite the young people’s academic aspirations, the pressure of their circumstances may have compelled them to get a job before pursuing a degree.

“It is encouraging that young people who find a viable career path after leaving school are just as happy with their lives regardless of whether they go on to university, an apprenticeship or work. This suggests there isn’t just one way to successfully transition into adulthood,” said Prof Ingrid Schoon, the study’s lead author.

“We must make sure that there are equal opportunities for young people who do not pursue higher education immediately after completing secondary education – this includes good quality vocational training and local labour market opportunities, particularly in the most deprived neighbourhoods.”

Read the full paper

A socio-ecological model of agency: The role of structure and agency in shaping education and employment transitions in England’ by Ingrid Schoon and Mark Lyons-Amos was published in Longitudinal and Life Course Studies in January 2017.

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Notes to editors

  1. The study participants completed compulsory schooling in 2006. They were asked how satisfied they were with their lives when they were 19 or 20 years old in 2010.
  2. Study participants who faced the most socioeconomic risks were considered to be disadvantaged. The risks included having parents with low or no qualifications, a gross family income below £10,400 per year, living in a household where none of the parents are working, having a single or teen parent, and living in social or private rented housing rather than a family-owned home.
  3. At age 14, the study participants were asked a series of questions about their schooling and expectations for the future, including how good they thought they were in maths, English, science and information communication technology (ICT); how likely they thought it was that they would ever apply to university; and how likely they thought it was that they would get into university if they did apply. They were also asked a series of questions about their attitudes to school at that age, including whether or not they were happy at school, if they thought their school work was worth doing, and if they got bored in lessons.
  4. Next Steps (previously known as the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England) has been following the lives of about 16,000 young people born in 1989-90 who attended secondary school in England. The study began in 2004 when the participants were in Year 9 and turning 14 years old. Following the first survey, the participants were visited every year until 2010, when they turned 20. The most recent survey took place in 2015-16, when the participants turned 26. The study has collected a wide range of information across different areas of the participants’ lives, including education, employment, economic circumstances, family life, physical and emotional health, and social participation and attitudes. Next Steps is managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studiesat the UCL Institute of Education, and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. From 2004-2012, the study was managed and funded by the Department for Education. Visit more information.
  5. This research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (Grant Number ES/J019658/1) for the Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societiesat the UCL Institute of Education. Prof Ingrid Schoon was also supported by the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (WZB). Dr Mark Lyons-Amos was supported by the post-doctoral fellowship program PATHWAYS to Adulthood, funded by the Jacobs Foundation.
  6. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 it celebrated its 50th anniversary.
  7. The UCL Institute of Education is a world-leader specialising in education and the social sciences. Founded in 1902, the Institute currently has more than 7,000 students and 800 staff. In the 2014, 2015 and 2016 QS World University Rankings, the Institute was ranked number one for education worldwide. It was shortlisted in the ‘University of the Year’ category of the 2014 Times Higher Education (THE) awards. In January 2014, the Institute was recognised by Ofsted for its ‘outstanding’ initial teacher training across primary, secondary and further education. In the most recent Research Excellence Framework, 94 per cent of its research was judged to be world class. On 2 December 2014, the Institute became a single-faculty school of UCL, called the UCL Institute of Education.
  8. University College London (UCL) was founded in 1826. We were the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to open up university education to those previously excluded from it, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. We are among the world’s top universities, as reflected by performance in a range of international rankings and tables. UCL currently has over 35,000 students from 150 countries and over 11,000 staff. Our annual income is more than £1 billion.| Follow us on Twitter @uclnews| Watch our YouTube channel

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