Young caregivers receive poorer Leaving Certificate grades and are less likely to go on to higher education

New research published by the ESRI, shows that one-quarter of 17-year-olds are engaged in regular caregiving for a family member but these young people receive poorer Leaving Certificate grades on average and are less likely to go on to higher education. The report draws upon data from the Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) longitudinal study, comparing young adult caregivers at 17 and 20 years of age.

The report adopts a broad definition of care, including regular care provided to parents, grandparents, siblings and others, not just those with an illness or disability. It examines the profiles of young people providing care at these ages, the factors predicting involvement in care, and sheds light on the impact of caregiving on educational pathways for these young caregivers.

The Profile of Young Adult Carers in Ireland

  • One-quarter of 17-year-olds are engaged in regular caregiving but the proportion providing care falls to one-fifth by age 20.
  • The main care recipients are younger siblings (15% when the caregiver is aged 17) and grandparents/other older relatives (12% at age 17). Over half of young caregivers provide care for multiple recipients.
  • In most cases, young people report that caregiving does not take very much of their time, with just 13% saying it takes up a lot or quite a lot of their time. Those looking after parents or grandparents spend more time on caregiving.
  • Those engaged in caregiving are a very diverse group. The strongest predictor of care involvement is the number of younger siblings in the family. 17-year-olds from advantaged families were less likely to be involved in caregiving. However, income did not alter the likelihood of being a caregiver at the age of 20. There are no significant gender differences at age 17 but at age 20, young men are more likely to be involved in caregiving than young women.

Outcomes of Caregiving Responsibilities for 17- and 20-year-olds

  • The strongest relationship between caregiving and outcomes among young adults was found for educational pathways.
  • Those involved in caregiving at age 17 subsequently tend to receive lower Leaving Certificate grades than their counterparts not providing care. This is particularly the case if they are caring for multiple family members.
  • Lower grades as a result of caregiving have implications for progression to higher education. Young carers are less likely to make this transition and when they do, they are more constrained in their institution choices, placing a strong emphasis on being able to live at home during their studies.
  • There is little evidence of a systematic relationship between caregiving and physical health or mental wellbeing. However, more intensive care involvement was related to higher rates of obesity and poorer self-reported health. Having a mother with depression was linked to poorer wellbeing among young adults, regardless of whether they reported providing care to them or not.
  • Caring for siblings or parents was associated with more positive relationships with family members. However, fighting between mothers and young adults appeared to be related to caring for younger siblings.

Policy Implications

  • The heterogeneity of young adult carers poses challenges in identifying and supporting young carers as a group. Traditional metrics such as household income are not as useful in this context for targeted measures.
  • Support for early years provision and a statutory home care scheme would likely benefit young adult carers as well as parents and care recipients.
  • Educational supports such as the School Completion Programme, if expanded to include carers as an explicit target group, have the potential to address the educational disadvantages revealed by the report findings.
  • Expanding access to family-focused mental health services may be one way to draw attention to the situation of young adult children with parents struggling with depression.

Dr Helen Russell, a coauthor of the report said, “Informal caregiving is an essential element of human society, but is often invisible. This is especially true for care provided by young people. This study highlights the important role that care provided by young people for their siblings, grandparents and others plays in family lives.” 

Dr Emer Smyth, a co-author of the report, said: “The report findings indicate the poorer educational outcomes found among young carers and highlight the need to provide supports for this group of young people. Home-School-Community-Liaison Coordinators and provision through the School Completion Programme could help young carers access the learning and socio-emotional supports they need. Higher education access processes should also recognise young carers as a group.”