Navigating an Uncertain Labor Market in the UK: The Role of Structure and Agency in the Transition from School to Work

Published date01 March 2020
Date01 March 2020
ANNALS, AAPSS, 688, March 2020 77
DOI: 10.1177/0002716220905569
Navigating an
Labor Market
in the UK: The
Role of
Structure and
Agency in the
Transition from
School to Work
905569ANN The Annals of The American AcademyNavigating an Uncertain Labor Market in The Uk
This article reviews the evidence on young people in
the UK making the transition from school to work in a
changing socioeconomic climate. The review draws
largely on evidence from national representative panels
and follows the lives of different age cohorts. I show
that there has been a trend toward increasingly uncer-
tain and precarious employment opportunities for
young people since the 1970s, as well as persisting
inequalities in educational and occupational attain-
ment. The joint role of social structure and human
agency in shaping youth transitions is discussed. I argue
that current UK policies have forgotten about half of
the population of young people who do not go to uni-
versity, by not providing viable pathways and leaving
more and more young people excluded from good jobs
and employment prospects. Recommendations are
made for policies aimed at supporting the vulnerable
and at provision of career options for those not engaged
in higher education.
Keywords: school-to-work transitions; social change;
structure; agency; UK; cohort analysis; the
“forgotten half”
The transition from school to work (SWT) is
crucial in the lives of young people. It is a
make-or-break period that can impact a range
of later outcomes, including employment
opportunities, patterns of family formation, and
health and well-being (Schoon and Bynner
2017). It generally spans the phase between
Ingrid Schoon is a professor of human development and
social policy at University College London, Institute of
Education. She is a fellow of the British Academy of
Social Sciences (FAcSS) and the Social Science Centre
(WZB) in Berlin.
NOTE: The preparation of this article was supported
by a Research Professorship awarded to the author by
the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB), Germany, and
a grant from the British Economic and Social Research
Council (ESRC), Grant Number ES/J019135/1 for the
Centre for Learning and Life-Chances in the Knowledge
Economies (LLAKES, Phase II).
completing full-time education or training, entry into paid employment, and
establishing oneself in the labor market. It is closely linked with a number of
other key transitions that mark the entry into independent adulthood, such as
leaving the parental home and starting a family. Since the 1970s, the SWT has
become more prolonged across most developed countries, as young people are
increasingly required to complete higher levels of education to compete in the
changing labor market (Furlong and Cartmel 2007; Shanahan 2000). Yet not all
young people are participating in higher education, and compared to other
European countries, the UK has a relatively high rate of early school leavers
(leaving education after the completion of compulsory schooling). Despite efforts
of successive UK governments to increase participation rates in postsecondary
education, the rate of early school leavers in 2017 was still above 10 percent
(Eurostat 2017), and the participation rate in higher education among 17- to
30-year-olds was 49.8 percent (DfE 2018). Thus, a large number of young people
in the UK do not continue in education or go to university. While most policy
efforts are targeted at increasing higher education participation, less attention is
paid to the “forgotten half” (Rosenbaum et al. 2015), that is, those who do not
attend or complete university. This review therefore focuses on this group’s expe-
riences in the SWT, drawing on evidence from nationally representative data
sources to map trends in the experiences of young people in the UK making the
SWT since the 1970s.
Understanding the SWT
In this review, I treat the SWT as a status passage in the institutionalized life
course (Buchmann and Kriesi 2011; Shanahan 2000), meaning that youth transi-
tions are largely shaped by opportunities and constraints presented by the socio-
historical context encountered and, within this context, are dependent on
individual decision-making and agency (Schoon and Heckhausen 2019). The
SWT is guided by country-specific age-related informal as well as formal, that is
legal, norms (such as minimum school leaving age or working hour restrictions).
It can be understood as an institutionalized sequence of status-role transitions
(i.e., transition from education to employment) and role configurations (i.e.,
working and studying at the same time) steered by social norms regarding age-
appropriate behavior and the timing and sequencing of status/roles (Settersten
and Gannon 2005). The state channels SWT patterns through related policies
and welfare institutions that facilitate normative transitions, such as entry into
paid employment after leaving full-time education, and buffer against nonnorma-
tive discontinuities in the life course, such as spells of unemployment (Heckhausen
and Buchmann 2019). In addition to institutional arrangements and social ine-
quality at the family level, historical and contemporary conditions, such as an
economic boom or bust, the prevailing cultural climate and political setting, all
play a role in shaping the contours of the life course. These conditions define the
potential pathways for individuals to follow, specifying relevant requirements for

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT