There have been calls in recent weeks and months for MPs to pledge their support to young carers. Young carers themselves have written to the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to ask him “to ensure that the needs of children and young people who are caring unpaid for friends and family members are being considered so they receive the support they need.…”. According to The Carers Trust, there are nearly 400,000 young adult carers in the UK. Many of them are juggling lives at school, college and university or trying to work whilst also providing physical and emotional support to a parent or other family member. So what does this mean for their education and work prospects compared with their peers who don’t have those additional responsibilities? As part of a major international research programme, Dr Baowen Xue and colleagues at University College London, have been investigating and outline some of their initial findings.
We’ve heard a lot over the years about how an ageing population has resulted in many more older people and people of working age having to care for a spouse or parent, but the focus of our research is younger people whose lives may be seriously disrupted and impacted by having to care for a parent, a grandparent or sibling at key points in their life when they are hoping to go to college or university or start out on a career.
Using information from the UK Household Longitudinal Study, we were able to look at information held on more than 27,000 young adults aged between 16 and 29 over a 10 year period from 2009.
Our earlier research had shown us that one in ten young adults reports being a carer. In this follow-up work we could see that compared with those who had no caring responsibilities, young carers were more likely to come from a disadvantaged, lower income household and have less well qualified parents in poorer paid jobs. So, life for these young people, even without caring responsibilities, was already tougher.
When we dug into the details of their caring responsibilities, we could see that one in ten of these young people was caring for 35 hours or more per week. A fifth of them was caring for 20 hours or more a week. Mostly they were caring for a parent or grandparent but 37% said they were caring for ‘someone else’, such as a friend or other family relatives The majority were caring at age 16/17 which we think could indicate that for many young people, caring was already happening in their teenage years before they entered the study, not something we were looking at in this piece of research but which is a really important thing to note.
A university degree
Carers in our study were on average 38 per cent less likely to get a university degree than their counterparts with no caring responsibilities. The more hours they spent caring, the less likely they were to get a degree. For example, those who cared for 35 hours+ per week were 86% less likely to have a university degree qualification.
Outcomes did not differ based on the carer’s gender.
As far as young adult carers’ work prospects were concerned, this seemed in our research to be more of an issue for young adults in their 20s. Carers aged 23 and over were less likely to enter employment and, not unsurprisingly, this depended largely on how many hours they spent caring.
Those caring for 35 hours or more per week were 46 per cent less likely to enter employment than non-carers as were those whose caring responsibilities lasted longer.
A key thing to emerge from this research was that having a degree actually buffered the negative effects of caring on the likelihood of being in work. In other words all things being equal, carers with a degree were more likely to be in work than those without. This demonstrates just how important it is to make sure these with caring responsibilities have equal access to a university education if that’s what they want.
The findings from this research provide compelling robust new evidence of the difficulties facing young adult carers at key points in their lives as they try to improve their prospects through education and work. It also shows being a young adult carer may set young people onto a long term path of disadvantage.
Our research shows quite clearly that caring responsibilities are competing with the time for education and work and we hope it provides support for young adult carers, and the organisations and individuals trying to help them through active campaigns for more recognition and support.
It is essential that as a society we work to identify young carers early and ensure they are supported within education so they have the same life opportunities as their peers without caring responsibilities.
Schools and universities undoubtedly have a key role to play in making sure that young carer students are identified and afforded the same opportunities as their peers, but this can only happen with clearly thought out policies across the system. We hope this evidence can feed into the development of those policies and play a role in securing the support young adult carers need and deserve.
- Does providing informal care in young adulthood impact educational attainment and employment in the UK? Is research by Baowen Xue, Rebecca Lacey, Giorgio Di Gessa and Anne McMunn
- Young carers much less likely to graduate Times Higher Education Supplement
- Carers Week 2023