young people's career choicesEverywhere we look, it seems that many young people are “paralysed” by anxiety and fearful of their future. With the current economic crisis, the aftermath of Covid, and the prevailing political uncertainty and tensions, both here and abroad, this doesn’t come as a surprise.

How young people feel about their future

Data from the Youth Voice Census 2022 – the biggest survey of young people in the UK – shows young people do not feel prepared for their futures, raising concerns that they are delaying crucial life decisions around jobs and careers. The survey went on to find that “anxiety” was the biggest barrier to finding work. Confidence in applying for jobs has therefore dropped, with less than half thinking they can write a CV. Almost a third of young people in work said they struggled with their well-being.

Laura-Jane Rawlings, CEO of Youth Employment UK, which carried out the census, said:

There can be no doubt that we are in the midst of an escalating mental health emergency… we have to be more ambitious for our young people and we have to act now.

What’s happening at schools?

A survey by NASUWT – The Teachers’ Union – has revealed that teachers across the country are also seeing the devastating effects of the cost-of-living crisis on pupils. More and more teachers are providing money, food, and clothing to help children and families deal with the deepening cost of living. The survey also found that many teachers are routinely providing referrals to food banks as families struggle to cope with the rising costs of food, fuel, and energy bills.

As pupils return to school, the survey of more than 6,500 teachers paints a disturbing picture:

  • Six in ten teachers said that by the end of the last academic year, more pupils went to school hungry
  • Nearly seven in ten said more of their pupils were lacking in energy and concentration
  • Three-quarters said they had experienced more pupils with behaviour problems
  • 65% said pupils did not have the equipment they needed for their lessons

Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT General Secretary, said:

This is a deeply disturbing picture of the damaging impact of the cost-of-living crisis on children and young people. There can be little doubt that this… is harming pupils’ education, learning and career development.

This also has a debilitating effect, not only on pupils, but also on schools and their teaching staff. Latest data reveals that teacher vacancies have reached record highs, pay increases have represented a pay cut in real terms, workloads remain high, and morale is at an all-time low. Finally, the possibility of strike action, which would undeniably threaten children’s learning and future career prospects even further, looms large.

What does this mean for school-leavers?

As we move up the school age range, studies show that school leavers, who are now actively exploring job opportunities, possibly for the first time, are increasingly concerned about the cost of living and their employment prospects. For decades, higher education has been heralded as the leading pathway for students after they have finished their A-levels. However, today’s school leavers are making decisions amidst this new, unprecedented socio-economic backdrop.

Recent research conducted by The Student Room (TSR) throws light on how the economic climate is shaping post-18 career pathway choices.

Whilst university is still seen as the preferred option for some, especially those from the private sector, concerns about the affordability of going to university are encouraging more school leavers to consider other routes. Degree apprenticeships are now an increasingly attractive option because they offer young people the chance to earn while they learn, avoid accumulating student debt, and still achieve an undergraduate degree. Given that almost half of the survey respondents were worried about whether they could afford to go to university, the opportunity to build skills while earning a salary is a powerful incentive.

Low confidence in the graduate labour market is another factor driving school leavers towards apprenticeships. In July of this year, The Student Room found that over half of school leavers were concerned about finding a job, let alone a rewarding career, when they finish their studies.

So, a perfect storm is brewing.

We see a disturbing combination of pupil anxiety, deteriorating teacher morale, worries about financial support, escalating costs and mounting confusion about future career prospects. Furthermore, it is those individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds who are being hit the hardest.

To say this is unhealthy would be a massive understatement. Without further support for prospective students from low-income families, we could see the attainment gap increase, with young people from more affluent backgrounds having greater access to higher education and the highest-paid graduate opportunities.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that tackling educational inequality is essential for raising the UK’s productivity and creating the skills-based economy necessary to foster future growth whilst facilitating social mobility. This is something that is now being seriously threatened. This also places a high degree of responsibility on educational organisations, employers, institutes, and industry to radically review how career advice is delivered to our schools and young people in general. With the pressures currently facing schools, career advice will start to fall by the wayside leaving a whole generation of young people feeling even more abandoned in their search for career opportunities that suit their ambitions.

We know that for many years, careers advice in the UK was on a life support system, and despite recent attempts to revive it through,for example, initiatives such as the Gatsby benchmarks, we are in danger of losing all the momentum that had been gained. Only 12 months ago, an independent survey titled “The Big Career Conversation with young people in England” revealed the following:

  • Young people want career guidance but are struggling to find it
  • Those young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, who need most support, are struggling to get access to professional career guidance
  • Early intervention in primary and career guidance in secondary schooling is essential from Year 7 onwards to prevent unconscious bias and gender stereotyping, which can be hard to change later in life
  • Technology can play more of a role in modern dimensions of career guidance, complementing the work of careers and enterprise specialists

One wonders what the results would be if a similar survey took place today. Like the climate crisis that is increasingly and rightly part of the national discourse, one feels a similar sea change in our approach to careers advice needs to take place to avail the next generation with the best possible opportunities for their future. If not now, when?