Growing Up in Ireland publishes research on the lives of 20-year-olds

Posted on: 22 November 2019

Growing Up in Ireland published a series of four Key Findings on the lives of 20-year-olds: how they are faring in important areas of their lives and changes since they were last interviewed at 17/18 years old. These Key Findings were launched by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr Katherine Zappone, at the 11th Annual Growing Up in Ireland Research Conference. Growing Up in Ireland is led by researchers from Trinity and the ESRI.

At age 20 these young people were transitioning to adulthood in a period of strong economic recovery. They were born in the boom years of the late 1990s but spent their middle childhood and early adolescence living in the depths of recession.  Findings on their experiences from age 9 to age 20 will help to inform those involved in the development of policies and services for children and young people about their lives and their support needs. The Key Findings analyse information from 5,191 20-year-olds interviewed between August 2018 and June 2019.

Growing Up in Ireland is the national longitudinal study of children, funded by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) with a contribution from The Atlantic Philanthropies. The study is managed by the Department in association with the Central Statistics Office and overseen by an interdepartmental governance structure. It is carried out by a consortium of researchers led by the Economic and Social Research Institute and Trinity College Dublin.

Katherine Zappone, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs with (from left to right) Trinity Professor of Sociology, Richard Layte, Emer Smyth (ESRI), Clare Farrell (Department of Children and Youth Affairs), Katherine Zappone, TD and Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Anna Visser (Department of Children and Youth Affairs) and Dorothy Watson (ESRI).

Where they live and adult roles

Most 20-year-olds still lived at home and were financially dependent on their parents.

  • Over two-thirds of 20-year-olds said they still lived with their parents, with most still depending on them financially, especially for basic living expenses. About 8% were experiencing financial strain (difficulty or great difficulty making ends meet), with higher figures for those from the lowest-skilled social classes (10%) or among those whose families experienced financial strain when they were 17/18 years old (14%).
  • At 20-years of age, 62% of the young people were in further or higher education; 6% were in training; 21% were working full-time and 6% were working part-time; 5% were not in employment, education or training.
  • Over two-thirds reported they had registered to vote at the time of the survey, over one-third said they had volunteered in the past six months, and over half said they engaged in some type of political activism in the last year, such as signing a petition, wearing a badge or posting material online.
  • The 20-year-olds indicated high levels of concern about general issues such as climate change and poverty. Access to housing in Ireland was the issue causing most concern to 20-year-olds, however, particularly among those from less advantaged backgrounds.
  • A desire for financial and employment security featured strongly in their aspirations for themselves in the next ten years: 73% rated being financially secure as highly important and 72% rated having a good job as highly important. Only a minority attached high importance to having a long-term relationship or having a child by the age of 30 (29% and 14% respectively).


Physical health and wellbeing

The 20-year-olds reported generally positive health but overweight and obesity levels had increased since they were aged 17/18.

  • Most 20-year-olds reported their general health as very good or excellent. Almost 16% of 20-year-olds said they had an ongoing chronic physical or mental health problem, illness or disability, increasing from 14% at age 17/18. The most prevalent of these were mental, behavioural or neurodevelopmental disorders.
  • Overweight and obesity levels had increased since they were 17/18 years old (27% were overweight/obese at age 17/18 rising to 36% by age 20). Obesity rates were higher for young women than young men (16% and 9%, respectively, were classified as obese at age 20). Levels of physical inactivity were also higher for young women than for young men.
  • About 15% of 20-year-olds smoked daily and another 23% smoked occasionally, while almost all young adults drank alcohol (93%).
  • Nearly one-quarter of 20-year-olds used cannabis occasionally or more often.


Emotional wellbeing and relationships

Most 20-year-olds used constructive strategies to cope with stress.

  • The majority of young adults often used constructive strategies to cope with stress, such as talking to friends (51%), spending time on hobbies or listening to music (50%) or discussing the situation with their family (37%).
  • About one-quarter of 20-year-olds experienced relatively high levels of stress and depressive symptoms.* This was more common among young women than young men (32% vs 23% with clinically significant depressive symptoms and 29% vs 21% with above-normal stress).
  • Young people who had problems with depressive symptoms at earlier ages and those whose mothers had depressive symptoms had a higher risk of depressive symptoms at age 20.
  • Mothers remained generally positive about their relationships with their sons and daughters. According to mothers, the most common sources of disagreement was helping around the house (57%).

*Depressive symptoms were measured by responses to 8 items on the survey and do not represent a diagnosis of depression.

Education, training and employment

High levels of participation in post-school education and training but inequalities in educational outcomes and pathways by family background

  • Nearly seven out of ten 20-year-olds were in further or higher education or training at 20 and the vast majority (87%) had taken a course since leaving second-level school.
  • Participation in higher education was high among 20-year-olds (almost 70%) but entry rates were lower among  those whose mothers had not completed second level (48%), among those who had taken the Leaving Certificate Applied programme (10%) and those in the lowest fifth of Leaving Certificate points (38%).
  • There was a significant achievement gap in Leaving Certificate performance by family background (mother’s education, social class and income); those from the lowest-skilled social classes achieved 326 points, on average, compared to 464 points for those from professional social class backgrounds.
  • Most 20-year-olds were positive about their second-level education, but many highlighted a lack of preparation for the world of work and adult life. Overall, 62% said school had been a lot of benefit in giving them reading / writing skills and 60% said it had been a lot of benefit in helping them make friends. However, 39% felt that school had been of no help in preparing them ‘for adult life’; 45% felt it had been of no help in ‘preparing for the world of work’.
  • Early school leavers were more likely to be ‘not in education, training or employment’ (NEET): 32% compared to 5% overall.
  • In thinking about the importance of different aspects of jobs, 20-year-olds were most likely to give a very high rating to the job being interesting (61% young men and 65% young women), to job security (46% young men and 58% young women); the job being a good step on a career ladder (33% young men and 40% young women) and work that was useful or helpful to others (29% young men and 43% young women).


Dorothy Watson, one of the report authors, said “These Key Findings paint a generally positive picture of the lives of 20-year-olds and their engagement with the wider world. They had a high rate of participation in post-school education or training; they were generally in good health and most used constructive strategies to deal with stress. The support of parents and friends was important to them.  Among the concerning findings were a relatively high rate of depressive symptoms; a higher rate of obesity than when they were aged 17/18 and marked inequalities in educational outcomes by family background.”

Launching the Key Findings the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr Katherine Zappone, said: “Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) is a critical element in the formation of new evidence based policy making in Ireland and these reports offer a window into the rich and unique data provided by GUI. I am delighted that these findings reveal that very many young people are doing well. They also highlight the impact of socio-economic inequalities, and these are issues that warrant our close attention and concerted efforts from a policy perspective. This evidence from GUI supports the commitment of my Department to focus on the issues of prevention and early intervention in key national strategies.”