Work, study, leisure – and living with parents: the latest insights into being a 20-year-old from the Growing Up in Ireland study
Growing Up in Ireland today (14th of December 2021) publishes a new report on the lives of young adults who were 20 years old in 2018/19 and who have been followed by the researchers since they were just 9 years old. Over 5,000 20-year-olds described their lives and well-being in the areas of health, work, home, education, relationships, and leisure time. Their accounts were complemented by interviews with their parents  who, in most cases, had also been participating in the study for over a decade.
The research captures a key phase in the young adults’ lives as they make the transition into post-school education, training, and employment, form an adult identity and forge new relationships with peers and others. The timing, shortly before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, will be crucial in understanding the impact of the public health emergency on a wide range of outcomes in the months and years to come.
Whilst the initial results from this wave were published as ‘key findings’ papers in 2019, today’s report provides a more detailed exploration of a wider range of experiences and outcomes in the main domains of young adults’ lives and how these vary by characteristics such as gender and family background – as well as their experiences at younger ages (9, 13, and 17/18).
The descriptive findings provide insights into key domains of the lives of 20-year-olds, often providing the first Irish evidence on topics such as: education and employment outcomes; living conditions; quality of relationships with parents and peers; early labour market experiences; physical and socio-emotional health and well-being.
The transition to adulthood
Over two-thirds of 20-year-olds (69%) were primarily in education or training . Over a quarter (26%) were in employment, either full- or part-time, with just 5% not in employment, education, or training (NEET).
Twenty-year-olds whose own parents had high levels of education were more likely to be still in education as their main activity: Just over half (52%) of the young adults whose parents had a Junior Certificate or lower level of education were still in education compared to 81% of young adults whose parents had a degree or higher. In contrast, of the 26% per cent of 20-year-olds who had already transitioned into employment, 39% came from households where their parents had a Junior Certificate or lower level of education, compared to 17% from households where their parents had a degree or higher.
Nearly 1-in-10 (9%) 20-year-olds reported financial strain (difficulty or great difficulty making ends meet).
Living with parents
The majority (68%) of 20-year-olds were still living with their parents, with only about a third (32%) reporting another non-parental address. Even among the minority with a non-parental address, almost all (87%), spent several nights a month in their parents’ home and 82% still considered their parental address to be their ‘main address’.
Twenty-year-olds who were in education or training were more likely to have an address outside of the parental home (38%) than those who were in employment (20%) or NEET (21%).
Twenty-year-olds still living in the family home were almost equally split between wanting to live at home (56%) and preferring to live independently (44%). Only 31% of 20-year-olds living at home said their living situation had nothing to do with their finances.
Post-school education and training participation
Higher and further education
A very high proportion (87%) of all 20-year-olds had taken part in at least one education/training course since they left school; 70% had taken  a Higher Education (HE) course, 17% had taken a Post-Leaving Certificate (PLC) course and 10% had taken another further education (FE) course .
While rates of HE participation were high across all groups, participation was strongly structured by family background. Breaking HE participation down by parental education, it was found that 86% of 20-year-olds from a household where parents had degree-level qualifications went on to HE compared to 48% of those whose parents had the equivalent of Junior Certificate qualifications or lower. Patterns of HE access were similar when explored by social class. Almost all (91%) of the 20-year-olds from families with a professional background went on to participate in HE compared to 51% of those in the lowest socio-economic group.
Overall, 11% of those who entered HE courses and 18% of those who had entered FE  courses dropped out of them. For HE, the drop-out rate for 20-year-olds whose parents had Junior Certificate qualifications or lower was 16% compared to 9% for those whose parents held degree-level qualifications. FE non-completion was not strongly related to social background but was strongly related to family type, with 24% of 20-year-olds from single parent families dropping out compared to 15% of those from two parent families.
Influences on course choice
The most highly rated factor in choosing a further/higher education institution was whether it provided the course or subject the young person wished to take: 71% said this was ‘very important’. However, being able to live at home while studying was a ‘very important’ factor for almost one-third (31%) of young people doing a course. This increased to 44% of 20-year-olds from less advantaged families where parents had the equivalent of Junior Certificate qualifications or lower.
There were noticeable gender patterns in the type of FE/HE course studied by 20-year-olds. Young women were more likely to take social science, health, and education courses while young men were more likely to take agricultural science and engineering courses.
Among those who had taken part in FE/HE courses, 35% had engaged in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) course. STEM participation was more common among men than women (41% versus 28%), and more common among those whose parents had at least degree-level education at 40% versus 29% of those whose parents held Junior Certificate level education or below. Finally, STEM participation was more common for those in the upper fifth of Leaving Certificate grades (51%) as opposed to lowest fifth (25%).
Labour market experiences
Full and part time employment
Just over a quarter of the 20-year-olds (26%) were in employment as their main economic activity. They were usually in full-time permanent contracts (71%). These were most often either in unskilled jobs such as cleaning (43%), or non-manual occupations, such as clerical work (36%). A further 15% were in skilled manual roles; 7% were in managerial positions, including a small group of professional-class workers.
Almost two-thirds of students also worked in a job during term time. Much of this group (85%) worked up to 20 hours per week and earned €200 or less a week (82%).
Nearly half of 20-year-olds hoped to be in a managerial/technical position by the age of 30 (45%) and a further 22% overall hoped to be in a professional role. More men anticipated being in professional roles in ten years compared to women (25% versus 20%). Those from families in the highest fifth of incomes were twice as likely to hope to be in a professional role by age 30 than those whose families were in the lowest fifth of incomes (30% vs 16%). Similarly, more 20-year-olds in education hoped to be in professional employment by age 30 compared to their peers in employment (27% versus 14%).
All 20-year-olds were asked what they wanted from a job: Having a job that was ‘interesting’ was important for nearly two-thirds of young adults (63%). The second highest-rated quality was ‘job security’ (52%). Those who were already in employment were more likely than those still in education/training to place high importance on gaining ‘promotions’ (41% versus 34%), having a job which is ‘a step on the career ladder’ (42% versus 35%) and ‘being their own boss’ (22% versus 14%).
Relationships with others
Social and practical support
Friends were an important source of emotional support, with 86% of all 20-year-olds saying they would talk to friends about their thoughts and feelings. This was followed closely (in terms of someone to talk to) by the 20-year-old’s mother (69%), a romantic partner (67%), another relative (52%), or their father (43%) (where applicable).
Friends and parents were also important sources of practical support and information for things such as ‘problems with coursework’ (50% seeking support from friends vs 14% from parents) or ‘being short of cash’ (13% seeking help from friends vs 88% from parents).
Romantic and sexual relationships
Just over half (57%) of 20-year-olds were in a romantic relationship of some kind at the time of the survey.
Most (84%) of the young adults had had sexual intercourse, with just over half becoming sexually active between the ages of 17/18 and 20. While most (85%) of the young adults answered that a condom would be the most effective method of preventing STDs, just a third of sexually active 20-year-olds used condoms on every occasion of sexual intercourse.
Leisure time and technology use
Physical activity and leisure
Overall, 65% of young adults achieved the national recommended guidelines for physical activity. Characteristics associated with greater likelihood of being sufficiently physically active were gender (71% of males, 59% of females), family socio-economic advantage (74% for 20-year-olds with higher educated parents versus 58% for those with lower educated parents) and being economically ‘active’ (68% in education/training, 65% for those in work, 39% for those not in education, training, or employment).
Many leisure activities were almost universally pursued by all 20-year-olds. Over 95% used the internet, listened to music, and socialised with friends. Over 80% attended pubs/clubs or watched television. However, young men were more likely than young women to participate in active pursuits such as attending the gym (64% versus 57%), playing team sports (58% versus 24%) or individual sports (36% versus 23%). In terms of other leisure activities, young women were more likely to regularly go walking (68% versus 48%), to read (47% versus 37%) or to sing/play an instrument (31% versus 25%).
Over half of all 20-year-olds said they typically spent over three hours online per day, with over 20% usually spending five hours or more online. Over 90% of all 20-year-olds used the internet for social media, watching video content, searching for information, and messaging and calling people.
Outside of these core internet activities, there were marked gender differences in some categories of online activity, with young men more likely to use it for gaming (68% versus 16% women), betting (16% versus 3%), dating (30% versus 21%) and pornography (64% versus 13%).
Considering behaviours used to manage their online presence, 44% of all 20-year-olds included location information on social media posts they made. Over a quarter (26%) had posted information they later regretted. Almost four-in-ten (39%) had deleted comments that appeared on their profile, and 51% had removed identifying information like tags that can appear on photos posted online.
Physical and socio-emotional health and well-being
As at younger ages, most young people reported being in excellent (27%) or very good health (47%). However, 16% of 20-year-olds reported having a longstanding condition or illness, a small increase from the 14% reporting similar conditions at 17/18. The most prevalent of these were psychological or behavioural conditions, and diseases of the respiratory system.
Nearly a quarter of 20-year-olds (24%) were overweight and a further 13% were obese at 20 years of age. This represented an increase since age 17/18 when 20% were overweight and 8% were obese.
Though the likelihood of being overweight was equal across genders at 24%, the likelihood of obesity was greater amongst young women (16% for women versus 10% for men) and those from less advantaged backgrounds (15% from the lowest fifth of incomes income versus 9% from the highest fifth of incomes) and those who had an overweight or obese parent  (12% if their parent was themselves overweight and 20% if their parent was obese versus 7% if their parent was at a normal weight).
Fifteen per cent of 20-year-olds reported being ‘daily’ smokers, while a further 23% said they smoked ‘occasionally’. Nearly 60% of young adults had ever tried cannabis, while 18% took cannabis occasionally and 6% took it more than once per week.
Almost all young adults (96%) had consumed alcohol by the age of 20, increasing from 90% at age 17/18. The average age for having their first full alcoholic drink was 16.
Amongst those 20-year-olds who had ever drank alcohol, 22% drank monthly, 49% drank two to four times per month, 22% drank two to three times per week, 3% drank 4+ times per week and just over 3% never drank.
A quarter of all 20-year-olds reported ‘above normal’ stress scores. Young women were more likely to report above normal stress than young men (29% versus 21%). Financial stress (‘difficulty/great difficulty in making ends meet’) was associated with higher stress levels. A quarter (25%), of those who reported experiencing financial strain also reported moderate to high stress levels, compared to only 15% of those who were ‘easily’ making ends meet.
Over a fifth of 20-year-old men (22%), and almost a third of 20-year-old women (32%) had elevated scores on a measure of depressive symptoms. Higher levels of depressive symptoms were associated with previous experience of symptoms (at 13 and 17/18 years) and with the parent also reporting depressive symptoms in their interview.
When faced with difficulties, the most popular coping strategies for 20-year-olds were talking to friends (55% for females, 47% for males), engaging in pastimes that would cheer them up (48% for females, 51% for males) or discussing problems with parents/family (44% for females, 30% for males). Much smaller proportions reported ‘often’ drinking alcohol or smoking (9% for females, 10% for males) as a coping strategy.
Socio-economic status and income were important influences on post-secondary education participation with material support from parents being particularly important for those from less advantaged families. Familial expectations based on educational background also played a significant role in shaping the young adult’s educational goals. These findings highlight the importance of formal supports such as grants and the guidance and feedback schools can provide in order to support the best educational outcomes for students.
The 20-year-olds’ reports indicated that most felt themselves to be in good health currently. However, many of their behaviours were not as healthy as they could be. On average, levels of physical activity had declined and weight status, levels of smoking and alcohol consumption had increased since the post-school transition. If sustained, this will likely have repercussions for their physical health in the years to come. The overall implication for policy is to aim to support healthier lifestyles around this key transition phase, particularly around physical activity, and the increased incidence of overweight and obesity of the 20-year-olds.
Many 20-year-olds were fairly satisfied with their lives; however, substantial minorities were experiencing at least some level of distress. This included a quarter who reported above-normal levels of stress and a fifth who had elevated scores on a measure of depressive symptoms. While the coping mechanisms and social support networks of the young adults appear broadly healthy and well developed, the goal for health policy should be to intervene to reduce the impact of poor mental health on educational and employment prospects and to intervene early to weaken the link between childhood and adult depression seen in the current study.
Dr Desmond O’Mahony, the report’s co-lead author, said, 'While the majority of 20-year-olds report good physical health and enjoy supportive relationships with their parents and peers, today’s young adults face significant future challenges, with a quarter found to be overweight and another 13% obese, a large increase since the previous study wave at 17/18 years. Furthermore, over a fifth of young men and almost a third of young women report elevated symptoms of depression, which is a worrying trend for the mental health of Ireland’s young adults’.
Dr Fergal Lynch, Secretary General of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth said, ‘As a longitudinal study Growing Up in Ireland has generated scientifically robust evidence for policy. These detailed findings will be an important resource for our Department and our focus on equality, but also for policy makers working across a variety of Government Departments and agencies, in areas that touch on young people’s lives such as health, education, employment and socioemotional well-being’.
 Note: At age 20, the Growing Up in Ireland survey included an interview with one parent of the Young Adult. This person was typically the person who had been interviewed as the ‘Primary Caregiver’ at previous waves and was often (but not necessarily) the biological mother. References to ‘parent’ or ‘parents’ in this release refer to that interviewed individual unless otherwise specified.
 (Education and training included Higher Education and Further Education such as Post Leaving Certificate courses and apprenticeships)
 ‘Had taken’ also includes current students based on their principal economic status at the time of interview.
 Post-school education/training pathways comprised higher (third level) education (HE), Post-Leaving Certificate (PLC) courses and other further education (FE) courses (including apprenticeship, Youthreach and training schemes).
 FE, PLC courses, and apprenticeships were combined due to the small numbers involved.
 This was typically the 20-year-old’s mother