Growing up in Ireland – The lives of 17/18-year-olds

New Growing Up in Ireland research paints a picture of the lives of 17/18-year-olds in 2016: generally in good health and ambitious for their futures, but with inequalities persisting.

Growing Up in Ireland today (30th July 2020) publishes a new report on the lives of young people who were 17/18 years old in 2015/2016 and who had been followed by the researchers since they were 9 years old. This was a period of employment growth and recovery, following the Great Recession, but well before the current COVID-19 challenge.

The findings show that 17/18-year-olds bring many positive attributes and resources into this important point in their lives: most have good relationships with their parents, are in good health, ambitious for their futures and are beginning to engage responsibly with the wider world. Nevertheless, there are some concerning findings:  inequalities in outcomes by social background, and notable proportions likely to be depressed, experiencing overweight or obesity or engaging in risky or hazardous drinking.

Commenting on the publication of this new report, the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration, Roderic O’Gorman, T.D., said:

“This new report from Growing Up in Ireland provides valuable insights about the lives of young people. While the findings show that most young people are faring well in education, health and relationships – they also highlight some worrying issues and reveal inequalities in some outcomes by social background and gender.

“The findings in this report will help my Department in supporting the well-being of young people and tackling social and gender inequalities. I am determined to ensure that, in light of the impact of Covid-19 restrictions, these inequalities are not further exacerbated.”

The report is based on interviews with over 6,000 young people and their parents conducted when the young people were 17/18 years old. At the time of the interview, four-fifths of the young people were aged 17 while one-fifth were aged 18. This report draws on the information gathered at all three rounds of the surveys with these young people when they were ages 9, 13 and 17/18 years old. 

The initial results from this wave were published in late 2016. Today’s report provides more detailed findings and more extensive insights into the lives of these young people in the context of their earlier experiences and in the context of national and international research on this age group. The results cover the socio-economic circumstances of the young people’s families and their outcomes in key domains of health, socio-emotional development (including the relationship with parents) and school/cognitive development. The report will help to inform policy-makers and others involved in providing services for young people and their families across a range of domains.

Some encouraging findings

In general, there were many encouraging findings, pointing to a healthy, ambitious and engaged group of young people who had positive relationships with their families, teachers and peers.

  • Almost all 17/18-year-olds described themselves as being in good health, with 36 per cent describing it as ‘excellent’ and 42 per cent ‘very good’.
  • Almost half (49 per cent) of all young people had ever smoked a cigarette but it is encouraging that the percentages currently smoking were much lower: 8 per cent said they smoked ‘daily’ and a further 12 per cent smoked ‘occasionally’.
  • At the time of the survey, most 17/18-year-olds (83 per cent) were still in second-level education; 12 per cent were in post-school education or training and a very small number (5 per cent) had entered the labour market (or were economically inactive).
  • Most parents (80 per cent) expected their 17/18-year-old to continue to higher education with similarly high expectations reported by the young people themselves. There was some variation by social background and parental education, but the majority of all social groups expected the young adults to go on to higher education.    
  • Young people were generally positive about their school experiences and their relationships with their teachers: about three-quarters liked school while 85 per cent felt they could talk to their teacher if they had a problem.
  • The advice of parents was important in helping young people decide what to do after school (57 per cent rating their mother’s advice as ‘very important’). Next in importance were individual career guidance sessions (32 per cent rating as ‘very important’), with 20 per cent rating class-based career guidance sessions as ‘very important’. Young people from the lowest social class background were more likely than those from professional social class backgrounds to regard individual or classroom-based guidance sessions as very important to their decision-making.
  • Over one quarter (28 per cent) of young people had participated in some form of volunteer work in the past year, with little difference between males and females. The most common types were with organisations such as Scouts, sports-related volunteering and fundraising.  

But some worrying results

Although the general picture of the lives of young people was a positive one, the analysis also highlighted a number of risk factors and challenges as young people move from adolescence to adulthood, providing an important evidence base for early policy intervention to target a number of issues:

  • Rates of overweight and obesity were concerning: 20 per cent of 17/18-year-olds were overweight and a further 8 per cent were obese.  Rates of overweight/obesity were higher for females (at 30 per cent vs 25 per cent for males) but with no evidence of an increase over time. Rates of obesity had increased for males from 4 per cent at both ages 9 and 13 to 6 per cent at age 17/18.
  • Most 17/18-year-olds had tried alcohol (90 per cent), having their first drink typically between the ages of 15 and 17.  One-in-twenty would be classified as high or very high risk using a screening tool and another 31 per cent would be classified as risky or hazardous drinkers. 
  • Nearly one-third (30 per cent) of the 17/18-year-olds said they had ever tried cannabis, with under 8 per cent currently smoking it ‘occasionally’ and 2 per cent doing so ‘more than once per week’.
  • On a self-reported measure of depressive symptoms (the Short Mood and Feelings Questionnaire), 20 per cent of 17/18-year-olds had a score in the ‘likely to be depressed’ range (note this is not the same as a diagnosis of depression). Young women were more likely to have a score in the ‘likely to be depressed’ category than males (24 per cent vs. 16 per cent), as were those who had been in the ‘likely to be depressed’ group at age 13 (42 per cent).
  • One-third of 17/18-year-olds said they had not paid the correct fare on public transport at least once in the last year.  Other forms of anti-social behaviour were less common but included ‘hitting, kicking or punching someone in order to hurt or injure them’ (13 per cent), taking something from home without permission (13 per cent), taking something from a shop without paying for it (12 per cent) and getting into trouble after behaving badly in public (12 per cent). Young men were more likely to have engaged in some form of anti-social behaviour than young women. Those who had reported engaging in antisocial behaviour at age 13 were more likely to report antisocial behaviour at age 17/18.

And worrying evidence of inequalities

  • Fewer young people in the lowest income quintile said they were in ‘excellent’ health (29 per cent vs. 43 per cent in the highest income quintile).
  • There was a substantial gap in average Junior Certificate achievement between the more advantaged and less advantaged groups (in terms of social class, education or household income) - amounting to about one grade point per subject (the equivalent of obtaining an A as opposed to a B grade across all of the exam subjects taken).
  • The rate of being overweight/obese was higher for young women than young men (30 per cent vs. 25 per cent, as noted above); and higher among those in the lowest income quintile than in the highest (29 per cent compared to 22 per cent). Young women were less likely than young men to meet the World Health Organisation physical activity targets for adults (53 per cent vs. 76 per cent). Those in the lowest income quintile were also less likely than those in the highest income families to meet the target (57 per cent vs. 71 per cent).  
  • Inequalities were evident in terms of engagement with education: 33 per cent of young people from the lowest income quintile disliked school compared to 16 per cent of those from the highest income quintile.

Policy Implications

  • Given they were at the point of transition to adult life, this cohort of young people will be particularly affected by broader policy measures which seek to promote access to paid employment and to increase the supply of affordable housing. 
  • Inequalities in outcome by social background were evident across a range of areas. Those in the most disadvantaged groups in terms of household income, social class and parental education were more likely to have unfavourable outcomes in terms of levels of physical activity, levels of obesity, disengagement from school and incidence of anti-social behaviour.
  • The gendered nature of young people’s lives is apparent, suggesting the need for more targeted responses to counter lower levels of physical activity and a higher incidence of depressive symptoms among young women as well as more negative relationships with teachers and a greater prevalence of anti-social behaviour among young men.

Dr Eoin McNamara, the report’s lead author, said “Of course, these results were about young people’s experiences before the COVID-19 pandemic. They do suggest that lack of access to school resources during the pandemic, such as career guidance, is likely to have been particularly consequential for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. The results also suggest that, with the restrictions on team sports and exercise classes, access to safe outdoor spaces in which to engage in individual exercise is likely to have been particularly important to maintaining healthy levels of physical activity.”