Young Adulthood: Aspirations and realities for living and learning in the 21st Century

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: School of Social Sciences


This research project sets out to further our understanding of how young adults' experience of education and employment relate to their ambitions and success in achieving residential independence and appropriate housing in the UK, and how these relationships are modified by gender and, for the first time, ethnicity. Recent years have been characterised by significant economic, social and cultural change, with contemporary young adults' transitions to adulthood in the UK altered by further deterioration of the youth labour market, expansion of higher education, increased unaffordability of housing, rapidly changing family contexts within which individuals are brought up and increased diversity of experience associated with second and third generation migrant groups. In this context, we need to re-develop our understanding of the contemporary transition to adulthood independence.

Past research has tended to polarise youth into those who experience so-called fast track transitions to adulthood, for example, through early, often chaotic, home leaving and those, often more advantaged youth, who are characterised by slow track transitions including delayed partnership and parenthood. Such a characterisation is too simplistic, however, and tends to ignore the moderating roles of gender and ethnicity. Furthermore, existing research, policy attention and media interest has tended to be focused either on "problematic groups" such as young parents or those not in employment, education or training (NEETs), or on the weakening jobs market for recent graduates and the perceived trend for graduates to increasingly move back into the parental home on completing their studies. This research seeks to provide a holistic overview of the experience of the full range of young people to deliver a comprehensive conceptualisation of young people's housing careers.

The proposed work is situated at the confluence of a number of fields of research including demographic transitions to adulthood; sociological debates concerning the roles of choice and constraint in pathways to adulthood; the impact of social policy on young adult's housing careers and inter-generational support between parents and their adult children. We will work in an interdisciplinary manner bringing together experts on youth transitions from the fields of sociology, education and social demography to deliver high impact policy and practitioner relevant research. The project will contribute to capacity building in advanced quantitative methods through the appointment of a Research Fellow and the up-skilling of the Co-I who is currently an expert in qualitative methods. Under the guidance of the PI, who is an expert in longitudinal methods, both the Research Fellow and Co-I will enhance their skills in the analysis of large and complex longitudinal datasets.

The research involves exploitation of several key data resources: UKHLS, EHS and HESA statistics. These data will enable us to answer the following interrelated research questions.
1) How do young adult's living arrangements vary according to their profiles of education, employment and parenthood?
2) What are the determinants of leaving home and boomeranging back into the parental home?
3) What factors are associated with leaving home for Higher Education (HE)?
4) What factors are associated with young peoples' aspirations for education and residential independence? How do these aspirations interrelate?
For each of these questions we are particularly interested in how these relationships differ by gender and ethnicity.
We will use this empirical evidence to put forward a new conceptualisation of young adults' housing careers and identify a series of implications for demographic projections and social policy. As a result of our existing engagement with Government policy makers and stakeholders we are confident that this research will have significant impact on both academic and non-academic users.

Planned Impact

This research will provide impact in a number of the ESRC's key areas for priority including "Influencing Behaviour and Informing Interventions". The project investigates attitudes and aspirations among different population subgroups and examines the family background, individual and wider societal factors associated with wellbeing in the context of attaining residential independence and suitable housing.

As a result of our user engagement in the design of the proposed research project we are confident that the project outputs will have significant impact beyond academia. In preparing the proposal we have consulted with Government analysts and policy makers e.g. the Family Demography Unit at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the Housing Policy Unit at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). We also consulted stakeholders who are concerned with increased social inequality and the difficulties faced by many young adults in accessing suitable employment and housing e.g. Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) and the Resolution Foundation (RF). We believe the project could help increase the effectiveness of public policy in the UK and will provide information which will be of economic benefit to the private sector, particularly the housing industry.

We have identified the following groups as some of the beneficiaries:
a) Government analysts in ONS responsible for making marital status and fertility projections. As noted in their letter for support, new insights into young people's aspirations for the timing of leaving home and family formation will be useful inputs into projections of future trends in family formation.
b) Government analysts in the Department for Communities and Local Government responsible for making future housing projections. Household projections are made by applying household representative rates to each age- and marital status- specific group. It is important therefore to have robust data on the increased propensity of young adults to share accommodation, rather than say live alone, since this decline in household representative rates has a significant implication for the overall number of houses required.
c) The Housing Industry will benefit from up to date knowledge about patterns in young adults' living arrangements, their aspirations for home ownership and recent experience with mortgage applications.
d) Government policy makers who are required to evaluate the impact of changes in housing benefit provision - specifically the increase in the age threshold from age 25 to age 35 in the amount of housing benefit awarded. Single, young adults in receipt of housing benefit only receive a level of housing benefit equivalent to the level required to rent a room in shared accommodation. The recent increase in the age group affected by this policy up to those aged 34 has been controversial and there is a distinct lack of empirical knowledge e.g. concerning the size and characteristics of the population likely to be affected by this change in policy. In particular, DWP are keen to find out how many single men are in fact non-resident fathers. For these men, the cap in housing benefit to the level for shared accommodation is likely to restrict their ability to have their children to stay overnight and hence effectively co-parent.
e) A number of stakeholder organisations including JRF, RF, and Crisis are engaged in debates concerning the increased difficulties faced, particularly by young single adults, in accessing suitable housing. These organisations are keen to incorporate high quality academic research such as being proposed here as evidence to support their policy proposals. In our discussions they have asked in particular for further information on groups who hitherto have not been the focus of research - including the housing careers of BME young adults, non-resident parents, and those young adults not on benefits but whose wages and career prospects preclude home ownership.


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Berrington A (2014) Young adults' living arrangements: The impact of economic uncertainty on leaving and returning home in the UK in Seminar on the effects of the crisis on young people

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Berrington A (2014) Young adulthood: Aspirations and realities for living and learning in the 21st Century in Making the 'Precariat': Unemployment, Insecurity and Work-Poor Young adults in Harsh Economic Conditions Conference

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Berrington A (2018) Expectations for family transitions in young adulthood among the UK second generation in Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies

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Berrington A Economic precariousness and young people's housing transitions in Young adults: Living and Learning in Recessional Times

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Berrington A (2013) The Future Agenda for Research on Young Adults' Transitions to Residential Independence in Journal Youth Studies Bi-annual Conference New agendas on youth and young adulthood

Description 1. New Knowledge: This project has generated new, policy relevant insights in three interrelated strands of research:
a. The impact of recent societal change (including the rise in participation in Higher Education, economic recession, welfare changes, and changes in the housing market) on the housing transitions of young adults. In particular we focus on the changing nature of the transition to residential independence and how the impact of economic precariousness on leaving home differs by gender, class and ethnicity. Work from this strand has been widely presented, written up in a journal article (Roberts, 2013), book chapter (Berrington & Stone, 2014), two Centre for Population Change working papers (#38 and #55) and two CPC policy briefing papers (#22 and #23). Work using HESA data to establish whether HE students are nowadays more likely to remain living in the parental home is on-going.

b. Aspirations for leaving home, for family formation, and for home ownership are explored using data from Understanding Society and the English Housing Survey. A paper examining ethnic differences in aspirations and realities for leaving home was presented at the Population Association of America conference, Analysis of tenure satisfaction and aspirations for home ownership were undertaken by Sarah Bruce for her MSc Social Statistics dissertation (Sept. 2013), supervised by Berrington and the results incorporated into subsequent papers (analysis attributed to Bruce).

c. Understanding teenagers' aspirations for higher levels of education: the intersection of gender, class and ethnicity. This work is based on the analysis of responses to the Youth Questionnaire from wave 1 Understanding Society. The work has been presented to a variety of academic and non-academic user audiences, written up as a journal article (Roberts et al., 2014) and submitted to British Educational Research Journal, and summarised in briefing paper #21.

2. Interdisciplinary Working and Capacity Building: We have achieved our second objective which related to the need to approach the analysis of youth transitions from an inter-disciplinary perspective and for capacity building of quantitative skills. The project was enhanced by the sharing of ideas and methods between the PI Berrington (Demographer & longitudinal analysis expert), Co-I Roberts (Sociologist working in area of youth transitions), Academic Advisors: Bhopal (expert on ethnic minority experiences of education) and Stone (life course analyst). As a result of the formal and informal training undertaken as part of the project the RA has gained experience in the management and analysis of complex longitudinal data, including the evaluation of attrition bias, use of event history analyses and application of weights. Roberts, primarily a qualitative researcher, has also gained experience with Understanding Society, has learnt how to incorporate weights and complex survey designs into statistical analyses, and has gained knowledge of how to apply multiple regression techniques.

3. Engagement with stakeholders: We have engaged non-academic stakeholders throughout the project: gaining advice when writing the grant application, developing research questions, interpreting results, and drafting briefing papers. Advisors included: the Demography group at the Office for National Statistics; the Household Projections team at the Department for Community and Local Government, and from the Greater London Authority, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Resolution Foundation. Three of our stakeholders took part in the panel discussion reflecting on the policy implications of the project findings at the project dissemination event on December 5th, 2014. In April 2014 Berrington was invited by the EU Commission DG Employment to discuss the project findings at a research seminar attended by policy makers and analysts, on the effects of the economic crisis on young people Project results have also benefited the private sector, informing the development of Experian's Mosaic Classification. Berrington was invited to talk about project findings relating to young adults' changing living arrangements at the launch of the 2014-release of Mosaic in April 2014.

4. Dissemination and networking: Findings have been disseminated using a range of publications and engagement activities including. Many of these are listed with photographs and links to conference papers and overheads on the project website
a. End of project dissemination - academics and policy makers interested in youth transitions and household formation.
b. Conference and research workshop presentations (around 15 in total, to a range of different audiences including: Private sector analysts (Experian Launch, 2014); EU Commission analysts and policy makers (Brussels, 2013); UK housing experts (LSE Future Household Formation, 2013) Demographers (British Society for Population Studies Conference, 2013; European Population Conference, 2014, Population Association of America Conference, 2014), Sociologists (Youth Studies Conference, 2013 and 2015; European Sociological Association Conference, 2013), Social Policy researchers (Social Policy Association Conference, 2013); and Understanding Society User Community (Keynote presentation at Understanding Society Conference, 2013).
c. Academic publications (2 journal articles, 1 co-edited book, 2 book chapters, 2 CPC working papers).
d. Briefing papers for policy makers (3 briefing papers
e. Podcast
f. Twitter. Our key findings and events have been disseminated using the CPC twitter account and by Steve Roberts (Co-I)
g. Other Media - articles which draw on project findings published in the Times and Financial Times.
Exploitation Route Impact is on-going, but already our findings are feeding into ONS and DCLG population and household projections. Understanding of why rates of household formation have declined dramatically over the past decade is useful in order to project future trends in family and household formation. In particular, public sector (e.g. DCLG and GLA) and private sector organisations (including house-builders) want to know whether recent decreases in headship rates among young adults are part of a longer term change in transitions to adulthood and owner occupation, or whether recent trends are a shorter-term reaction to economic uncertainty. We have also discussed our findings as they emerged to think tanks e.g. Resolution Foundation, and to academic and policy audiences. Our end of project dissemination event was a great success. See project page for slides
Nine out of ten of the event attendees said in the feedback questionnaire that they would use the information from the event in their own work/studies, with the same numbers planning to pass the information onto colleagues.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Construction,Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Transport

Description Our findings are informing the assumptions being developed for the National Population Projections made by ONS and the household projections made by DCLG. We have also discussed the relevance of our findings with those responsible for making plans and policies for housing at a sub-national level including representatives from the GLA. In discussing our findings with the Resolution Foundation (RF), a think tank focused on low to middle income workers, they commented that our work has made them think about how economic precarity is particularly affecting young workers (as opposed to all adult workers), and that they need to consider how economic precarity may prevent young people making transitions to adulthood in other life domains. RF were also very interested in our findings relating to increasing self-employment and short-hours working among UK youth and suggested that more detailed questions teasing out what this actually means for young adults need to be included in large scale surveys such as Understanding Society. Berrington has brought this issue to the attention of the Understanding Society Scientific Advisory Committee. Project findings have also been used by the private sector to inform their understanding of demographic change and especially the living arrangements of young adults. Experian, have launched a new version of their demographic segmentation software which highlights different population sub-groups according to their household structure. A number of new classification types based around the increased co-residence of young adults with their children have been developed. Experian invited Berrington to give a talk which included details of the ESRC project findings at their launch event in April 2014, which was attended by around 200 marketing experts from UK companies. It seems likely that the project will continue to have impact. 69% of attendees completed a feedback form at the end of the dissemination event in December 2014. Nine out of ten of these respondents said they would use the information from the event in their own work/studies, with the same numbers planning to pass the information onto colleagues. Since 2016 Berrington has acted as an academic advisor to the DWP Families and Children and Disadvantage strategy team. I have met with the team 3 times in London and provided oral and written comments on DWP strategy for disadvantaged families. Evidence i.e. findings from research from the Aspirations In Young Adulthood project have been used by DWP in setting their framework for action.
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Construction,Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Description 2014-based National Population Projections
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Impact The work from this project, and my participation as Expert Advisor to the National Population Projections team at the Office for National Statistics helped set sensible assumptions for the variant projections e.g. in fertility.
Description Evidence on young adults' household formation informing DCLG Household Projections
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact The work has informed the assumptions made by DCLG in making their 2012-based household projections.
Description Participation in advisory committee - 2016 based Naitonal Population Projections. ONS
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Impact The national population projections provide the basis for national and local government planning e.g. in terms of infrastructure e.g. roads, housing and services, e.g. hospitals and schools.
Description Research on changing transition to adulthood and inequalities in transition to adulthood used to inform DWP Green Paper on life course inequalities and social justice
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Membership of a guideline committee
Description HEFCE
Amount £43,000 (GBP)
Organisation Higher Education Funding Council for England 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2015 
End 07/2015
Description RAC Foundation
Amount £12,400 (GBP)
Organisation RAC Foundation 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2013 
End 07/2014
Description Collaboration with Population Europe to write a policy brief for European stakeholders 
Organisation Population Europe
Country Germany 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Together myself, my two coauthors worked with the Population Europe knowledge exchange team to put together a policy brief on "Becoming an Adult in Europe" published in Nov. 2017
Collaborator Contribution They co-ordinated the collaboration, typeset, printed and disseminated both hard copy and electronic copies to academic and policy stakeholders across Europe.
Impact Policy Brief
Start Year 2017
Description Consultancy for 'giff gaff' mobile phone network 
Organisation Giffgaff
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Steven Roberts provided consultancy for 'giff gaff' mobile phone network: written academic commentary on their project 'Mum Maison', focusing on advice for how young people might manage the return to living in the family home.
Collaborator Contribution Mum Maison project
Impact See description above
Start Year 2014
Description Meetings with Advisory Stakeholder Office for National Statistics 
Organisation Office for National Statistics
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Over the course of the 18th month project the research team met with the Head (Dr Julie Jefferies) and other researchers (Dr Oliver Dorman, Karen Gask, and Emily Knipe) from the ONS Centre for Demography. The research team formally presented their findings on three occasions, and on a further two held verbal discussions concerning current findings and questions of how the work might be relevant for ONS.
Collaborator Contribution The research team received feedback from ONS on technical matters e.g. definitions, data availability but also on the relevance of the project's research questions and findings for Government Policy and making Population and Household projections.
Impact The ONS team have commented on research paper drafts some of which are now published e.g. CPC Working Paper 55. Others are in submission.
Start Year 2013
Description Meetings with Advisory Stakeholder Resolution Foundation 
Organisation Resolution Foundation
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Initially through email and recently through a face to face meeting the research team have discussed their research question, methods and results with Vidhya Alakeson and Laura Gardiner. In particular we have talked about how to measure economic precariousness among young adults and how this relates to their housing transitions.
Collaborator Contribution Vidhya Alakeson and Laura Gardiner have provided feedback on the original proposal, development of research questions and preliminary findings. Vidhya Alakeson is a panel discussant at the end of project dissemination event on 5th December 2014.
Impact Vidhya Alakeson and Laura Gardiner have commented on draft papers, some of which have been published, eg CPC Working Paper 55 - Economic precariousness and living in the parental home in the UK.
Start Year 2013
Description Partnership with Paul Wakeling (University of York) on HEFCE-funded project 
Organisation NIHR/HEFCE Higher Education Fund for England
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We undertook analyses of the circumstances of young graduates in the UK, according to parental socio-economic background in order to assess the likely ability of young people to be able to afford postgraduate education.
Collaborator Contribution Paul Wakeling and I worked together on this project and we hired a post-doctoral researcher for 4 months - Adrianna Duta. She was based in Southampton and I supervised the analyses she carried out. The report was jointly written with Paul Wakeling taking the lead in writing.
Impact Wakeling, P., Berrington, A. and Duta, A. (2015) Investigating an age threshold for independence at postgraduate level. Bristol, GB, Higher Education Funding Council for England, 95pp.
Start Year 2015
Description Kirby Swales, Survey Centre Manager, NATCEN writes a blog about the launch of the Insights Findings 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact The Insights panel discussion at the end of October stimulated the writing of this blog which acted to further disseminate SDAI project findings

Social media eg tweets have demonstrated that the blog has raised awareness.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description Media Interviews on Changing Young Adulthood for Radio 4 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was approached by the "You and Yours" team from BBC Radio 4 to help them design and deliver a series of radio programs about the changing life course, and particularly about generational changes in transitions in young adulthood and family formation. I provided a lot of background material and statistics to the programme makers and was interviewed for two of the programmes - Your Money and Your Life - Twenty-somethings. and Your Money and Your Life - Thirty-somethings.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Understanding Society Workshop on Family Dynamics 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Stakeholders e.g. from DWP attended a workshop organised by the Understanding Society team where the strengths and limitations of Understanding Society for examining new forms of family and family dynamics was debated. I gave a presentation on the strengths and weaknesses of BHPS and USoc for studying leaving and returning home. This included suggestions for future data collection on intentions re cohabitation, and more information re inter-generational transfers e.g. of money, assets, help with mortgages etc.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016