The changing circumstances faced in education and the labour market are often used to argue for a radical heterogeneity in the transitional pathways followed by young people (Biggart, Furlong and Cartmel 2008: 56). While an empirical evaluation of this claim is beyond the scope of the present project, it is worth considering the extent to which the influence of detraditonalisation theorists, often cited by those making the strongest instances of such arguments, has shaped the way in which the issue is framed. The aforementioned authors suggest that,
“whereas members of the earlier generation of youth researchers may have focused on structure at the expense of agency, in the rush to embrace late modern or post-modern perspectives, contemporary researchers have perhaps over-stated the significance of processes of reflexivity and life management.” (Biggart, Furlong and Cartmel 2008: 57)
Nonetheless the position of young people within the labour market has been radically transformed, with their employment prospects increasingly detached from parallel trends within the labour market more broadly such that they suffer during downturns without any converse increase during periods of economic recovery (France 2008: 18). This takes place against a backdrop of broader economic upheaval within the industrialised world, with a decline in manufacturing and a rise in the service sector giving rise to a growing bifurcation between a demand for skilled labour within the ‘knowledge economy’ and an abundance of ‘poor work’ offering poor conditions and demanding little education or training (Shildrick 2010: 100). The ascendancy of the new right during the 1980s and the shifting political culture brought about by it saw these nascent trends compounded for young people by concomitant processes of ideologically blaming the young for lacking the wherewithal to thrive in a modern labour market while also restructuring their position within it in order to instill the discipline and competencies deemed necessary (Mizen 2004, France 2008). These processes both shaped and were shaped by a growth in post-compulsory education and the emergence of the ‘training state’ (Mizen 1994, 2004). Likewise as Furlong (2006: 17) observes during the 1970s it was common for large numbers of young people, often even a majority, within advanced industrial societies to have left school by the age of 16/17.
In common with all of the OECD countries, this has increased dramatically since the 1980s, such that “with a substantial growth in the proportion of young people who participate in post-compulsory education, there has been an overall increase in the qualification profiles of school-leavers and hence an expansion of the potential pool of applicants for university” (Furlong 2007: 18). This is one factor in an expansion of university education from around 4% in 1960s to around 37% at present (Archer 2007: 319). Though such a rapid growth unavoidably gives rise to inflationary pressures on the value of credentials, graduates can still expect to earn considerably more than those with A levels, on average around £16 p/hour to £10 p/hour respectively. However, as the authors observe, this is not true of those aged 21 to 24. They suggest this is a reflection of the different earnings profile of the two groups over time, which is “relatively flat” for those with A levels or less but, in the case of graduates, does not peak until well into working life despite often translating into an initial differential in relation to those young people who have accumulated a number of years work experience in spite of their lack of qualifications (McKay and Rowlingson 2011: 98-99). Though graduates will still likely encounter the casualized and precarious labour conditions which characterise the labour market more broadly, the employment biography within which this occurs is likely to be substantially different from that of non-graduates. As Furlong (2007) puts it, “the ‘graduate labour market’ has become segmented into secure and less secure zones as well as into segments that have a looser correspondence to graduate skills … whereas traditional graduate jobs have long been the more or less exclusive preserve of those with university degrees (such as lawyers, doctors and scientists), the other three sectors of the graduate labour market refer to those areas that have gradually become (or are still becoming dominated by people with degrees”. So any inflationary pressures in the value of credentials or diminishment in the conditions of graduates within working life is, at least in part, offset by the relative advantage simply having a degree confers in a society much more broadly characterised by profound inequalities:
‘The research evidence on social mobility shows clearly that we do not live in a perfectly meritocratic society: people’s occupational and economic destinations depend to an important degree on their origins. And if we compare Britain with other countries, rates of intergenerational mobility in terms of incomes are low and in terms of occupation are below the international average for men and at the bottom of the range for women … Britain, the United States and Brazil had the lowest levels of social mobility in terms of income. it therefore seems to matter more in Britain who your parents are then in many other countries.” (McKay and Rowlingson 2011: 95)
This lack of social mobility finds reflection in a degree of educational reproduction which belies the claims made about the radical heterogeneity of youth transitions in late modernity: 44% of 18 year-olds with professional parents continue on to higher education whereas the same is true of only 13% of those with parents in routine occupations (Atkinson 2010: 78). The former group may very well encounter precarious labour conditions either during their degrees, with increasing numbers working part-time during degrees in response to a hostile funding and support climate, or in the graduate labour market. But a preoccupation with an increasing tendency for graduates to encounter such circumstances within their employment biographies occludes their relative structural advantage qua graduates, particularly when, as seems likely, the coalition government’s educational reforms lead to a contraction in overall numbers and increasing stratification within the higher education system as a whole. Though young people from disadvantaged neighbourhoods were 50% more likely to get a place at university than they were fifteen years ago, this expanded access to higher education has overwhelmingly been to new universities. Yet as Reay (2011: 116) argues, “the ‘massification’ of the higher education sector has resulted in the reproduction fo the UK school system’s highly polarized and segregated hierarchy, with those new universities with sizable cohort sof working-class students languishing at the bottom of the university league tables, while the Russell Group universities, with equally sizable numbers of privately educated students, are at the pinnacle”. An increase in stratification in a context of broader contraction within the system seems likely to disproportionately advantage those students at the pinacle of it. Furthermore a Higher Education Careers Service Unit study found that even current levels of debt were leading larger numbers of final year students to work longer hours. Given that Oxford and Cambridge prohibit work in term time, it seems likely that access to the upper tiers, with all this implies for access to the professions, will become increasingly difficult for large swathes of young people (Reay 2011: 123).