Tracks to Adulthood: Post-school Experiences of 21 Year Olds: The Qualitative Component of Competent Learners @ 20

Publication Details

The longitudinal Competent Learners study has followed the progress of a group of around 500 young people from just before they started school. Information was collected at two-yearly intervals from age 4 until the age 16. The latest phase of the study revisited 401 of the participants at age 20 and looked at how they had fared since they left school , their current situation and experiences, what role their school experiences and performance played as they progressed into early adulthood and what they were gaining from current study and employment.

This report details the findings of an in-depth, follow-up study undertaken with 29 of the study participants one year later (aged 21). These young people were chosen because their paths into adulthood seemed less straightforward than others and they had not followed a ‘well-lit path’ from secondary school to tertiary education.

Author(s): Lesley Patterson, New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Date Published: September 2011

Please consider the environment before printing the contents of this report.

This report is available as a download (please refer to the 'Downloads' inset box).  For links to related publications/ information that may be of interest please refer to the 'Where to Find Out More' inset box.

Executive Summary

Research Context and Approach

This report presents research exploring the transition to adulthood of 29 young people (aged 21) focusing on their experiences since leaving school, their current circumstances and the futures to which they aspire. Participants were selected from the larger sample of the Competent Learners @ 20 phase of the Competent Learners study. That study found that, for many young people, the transition to adulthood now often follows a "well-lit path" from school to tertiary education. The transition to adulthood of young people who had not followed this well-lit path is the focus of this report. Some left school early (by age 17); others completed Year 13 but did not go on to tertiary study. At age 21, some had been mainly working since leaving school, some were participating in or had completed post-school education and training, some were mothers and some were unemployed.

Recent changes in the type and timing of young people's experiences of the transition to adulthood means there are now "no hard and fast rules about young people in transition" (Vaughan, Roberts, & Gardiner, 2006, p. 90). The transition to adulthood now occurs in the context "a choice biography", a new biographical norm which requires individuals to make choices and piece together "a life of one's own" (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002, p. xxii). This differs from the biographical norm of the recent past, "the standard biography", in which people's lives were "laid out before them like tramlines: people's origins decided which lines to follow and which destination or destiny they led to" (Brannen & Nilsen, 2005, p. 415).

Summary Findings

The 29 young people reflected on their lives since leaving school, as well their future plans and aspirations. Their transit to adulthood was analysed in relation to key domains of their transition experience. These are described as "biographical fields" in this research and include leaving school, post-school education and training, employment, living and personal circumstances.

In talking about their experiences, the young people identified past decisions and choices that had consequences for later events or decisions and choices, and sometimes in other fields (for example, getting a job enabled them to then leave home; or enrolling in a course required them to then work part-time). Sometimes they talked about these experiences in relation to their future plans and aspirations. In this research, these temporal connections between experiences are described as "biographical momentum". Momentum captures the dynamism that characterises the young people's lives, and the active engagement of many young people in "moving their lives forward", making decisions about what they should do next in the context of what has already happened.

The 29 young people shared similar aspirations for their future. "Independence" and "security" were the two major themes that framed their aspirations and plans. They wanted to be financially independent and secure (and some already were). They also aspired to secure personal lives: owning their own home, typically with a present or future partner; and forming families of their own.

Variations were apparent in the young people's experiences of their transition to adulthood, and of their momentum towards the independent and secure futures to which they aspired. The research identified three key fields which, combined in different ways, explain their current situations (employed; in education or training; mothers; unemployed) and which coalesced into seven biographical patterns. The three fields were:

Key field 1:  Leaving school

Young people who left school early (by age 17) were more likely to recall that "School was not for me". A much smaller group of early-leavers remembered leaving school as incidental to other things happening in their lives (for example, family issues may have been paramount at that time). Young people who left school at the end of Year 13 remembered leaving school simply because "It was time to leave", as did a small group of early-leavers.

Key field 2: Post-school education and training

In the period between leaving school and age 21, some young people had enrolled in post-school education and training. Some completed courses that led to comparatively secure employment and vocational identities valued by the young people. Some completed courses but could not find work in related fields. Those who completed courses at NZQA Level 4 or above had more momentum towards the independent and secure futures to which they aspired than those who enrolled in or completed courses at NZQA Levels 1 to 3.

Key field 3: Employment

In the period since leaving school and age 21, all of the young people had some experience of paid work. Some had a history of insecure work (which was sometimes also part-time and short term), working any and many jobs, and working in (for example, "in hospitality"), working at (for example, "at the supermarket") or working for (for example, "for my uncle"). At age 21, some had secure, full-time work, working as (for example, "as a nanny" or "as a web designer"). Some young people were not in paid work at age 21; some were unemployed, and while some had a history of paid work until recently, others' experience of paid work since leaving school was marked by discontinuity and a yo-yo pattern of employment, unemployment and low-level courses that did not lead to related work. Some of the young people were mothers; none of them were in paid work at age 21, but all had worked before becoming mothers and all aspired to paid work in the future.

The seven biographical patterns identified were:

Pattern 1: Working at age 21, no relevant post-school education and training

Some young people had been in paid work since leaving school and were still working at age 21. They had not enrolled in any post-school education or training, yet were in comparatively secure work, often full-time, working in (for example, "in retail") or at (for example, "at The Warehouse"). Work gave these young people biographical momentum in other fields as they transited to adulthood: they could go flatting with other young people; socialise with their friends; and save money for future goals such as a house deposit or an overseas holiday. These young people recalled leaving school because "School was not for me" (all early-leavers) or because "It was time to leave" (some early-leavers and some school completers). Some had completed post-school education and training but in areas unrelated to the jobs they had at age 21.

Pattern 2: Working at age 21, post-school education and training


Some young people enrolled in post-school education and training sometime after leaving school. Qualifications at NZQA Level 4 and above and which are "close to industry" (for example, provided by a specialist college or training school) gave some young people a "fast track" (or trajectory) to adulthood as their vocational identities consolidated. These young people were secure and independent at age 21, and have clear future goals to consolidate their independence and security.

Pattern 3: In education with a career goal at age 21, returned to learning

Some young people left school early because "Lots of things were happening in my life". Although they left school with no or low qualifications, they had "returned to learning" after completing a Certificate in University Preparation, and were enrolled in degree-level courses with a career goal in mind. Young people with this biographical pattern had university-educated mothers. They also had experience of working for and working at in the years following leaving school, and through paid work had already achieved some independence and security. At age 21, biographical momentum appeared to be accelerating as they moved towards the careers to which they aspired.

Pattern 4: In education with a career goal at age 21, gap year

One young person took a gap year between finishing school (at the end of Year 13) and starting degree study. At age 21 and enrolled in a degree programme, biographical momentum towards the career to which they aspired was apparent.

Pattern 5: Not employed or in education or training at age 20, studying or unemployed at age 21

Some young people had a post-school transition experience that followed a yo-yo pattern. This pattern means they have moved between work, unemployment and training courses, but the courses they have completed have not led on to related work or education and training at a higher level. Insecure and low-paid casual work characterises the "working" phase of the yo-yo transition pattern. When unemployed, they seek work or enrol in low-level courses to improve their circumstances. Biographical momentum is thus contingent. All of the young people who experienced this transition pattern were early school-leavers, and all remembered leaving school because "School was not for me".

Pattern 6: Recently unemployed

Some young people were recently unemployed. All had been early school-leavers, and all remembered leaving school because "School was not for me". None had completed post-school qualifications at Level 4 or higher, although some had completed NZQA Level 1 or Level 2 immediately after leaving school. Some had experienced comparatively secure, full-time employment since leaving school, but they had worked in industries where job losses were occurring because of the recession. Some were young people who had until recently been in any and many jobs, more or less continuously since leaving school, but these jobs were getting harder to find. While these young people had experienced momentum across fields in the early years after leaving school (for example, many had left home and had been living independent "adult" lives), new contingencies were arising.

Pattern 7: Mother at age 21

All of the mothers at age 21 had left school early, and all remembered "School was not for me". Although they had been employed before their children were born, their post-school transition typically followed a yo-yo pattern. Some were moving towards more secure employment before they became mothers. All were not in paid work at age 21 but were considering how to get back to work. These young people had taken a fast track to adulthood: their social identities had been irreversibly transformed (from young person to mother), and although now adults, their aspirations for secure and independent futures were complicated by their responsibilities for care.

Overview of Key Issues

The seven biographical patterns identified illustrate that young people who leave school early, or leave school at the end of Year 13 but do not go on to tertiary study, follow diverse pathways which, in turn, offer varying degrees of momentum towards the futures to which they aspire. Some transitions are comparatively "fast"; others less so. Policy responses that attend to the diversity of young people's post-school transition experiences are further complicated by the following:

  • Young people's lives are situated by what has already happened to them; by the resources they can draw upon to enact choices and decisions as their lives move forward; and by broader social forces that enable or constrain choices and decisions at a wider societal level.
  • The choices and decisions made by one young person might not have the same effects or consequences if made by another. For example, leaving school early might result in a yo-yo transition pattern, but it might not. Biographical patterns do emerge over time, but these patterns are not deterministic.
  • The choices, decisions, events and experiences young people have in one field (for example, "employment" or "post-school education and training") have effects and consequences in others. Sometimes these effects and consequences accelerate biographical momentum; sometimes they slow it. For example, for some young people, personal relationships enable momentum towards a shared future (through the shared aspirations of home ownership and family formation). For others, relationships constrain choices. For example, they might result in a young person "withdrawing" from school early, or limit the capacity for the young person to realise opportunities for participation in paid work or further education and training.
  • The choices young people make may not have clear or immediate effects on momentum; the consequences may be temporally delayed, and sometimes contradictory. For example, some young people completed post-school education and training in low-level courses that did not lead on to congruent work or higher level courses. Although young people were often disappointed at not finding related work, some young people also described course completion as a positive experience in itself. It gave them a sense of personal achievement, and for some young people who had left school because it "was not for me", a subsequent and more positive learning identity was emerging which countered their earlier more negative memories of formal education, or of themselves as learners.


In the context of these complexities, the research raises issues important to consider in a policy environment that seeks to improve young people's post-school transition experiences. The research offers insights in regard to four aspects of the emerging model of youth transition (and consistent with the new biographical norm, a choice biography). These are:

  1. The risk of inactivity after leaving school
  2. Life-long earning and learning for life
  3. Young people as decision-makers, taking and making opportunities for themselves
  4. Adulthood marked by periods of combined employment and study through life, and commitment to marriage and parenting later in life (Vaughan et al., 2006, p. 2).

1. The risk of inactivity after leaving school

For policy makers, "inactivity" is likely to be synonymous with not being in paid work but for young people, unemployment does not mean they are "inactive". This is in part because paid work is important for young people as it makes possible momentum across biographical fields. Young people want to be in work because working and earning are fundamental to their sense and realisation of independence and security. Thus, young people experience unemployment as a time to take action; "unemployment" requires them to act. When unemployed, young people act to move their lives forward, towards the futures to which they aspire. They look for jobs, they work any and many jobs and they enrol in courses they hope will lead to paid work. Young people who are unemployed at 21, or have been unemployed at some time since leaving school, rarely use the term "unemployment". They describe periods of unemployment as the periods "between": between jobs, or between work and study. However, they struggled to move their lives forward if they did not have access to paid work.

The main way young people do seek to improve their employment opportunities is through post-school education and training. Sometimes this is successful and especially if courses are completed at NZQA Level 4 or above. However. young people who take this "path" usually move from employment and to a course, or continue to work part-time while studying.

Young people who are not working enrol in courses they hope will lead to work. These courses are usually at NZQA Level 1 to Level 3, and the young people choose these courses because they appear to have a vocational focus (for example, a "pre-trade course" or an "introduction to service course"). Young people enjoy these courses but they rarely lead to congruent employment, or to education and training at a higher level. Young people's engagement in these courses is also gendered. Young men enrol in courses that are congruent with male-dominated occupations (for example, automotive- and construction-related courses); young women enrol in courses congruent with female-dominated occupations (for example, hospitality- and beauty-related courses).

For some young people, courses that do not lead directly to employment can have positive consequences, or may do into the future. For example, it may be the only qualification the young person is currently carrying forward and has symbolic importance because of that. Some young people complete qualifications and then later move into work in an unrelated area.

Unemployment is shaped by, and has consequences, in other fields. For example, some young women spoke of personal relationships that constrained momentum in the fields of education or employment but enabled them to experience some momentum in their personal lives. For some young women, motherhood was a consequence; for others a yo-yo transition pattern consolidated over time.

2. Life-long learning and learning for life

Young people generally see post-school education and training as important for employment opportunities, and especially so if they aspire to employment working as, or if their transition experience has followed a yo-yo pattern when courses offer them hope for future work in an area related to the courses they choose. A few young people in secure jobs had participated in workplace training and were positive about this, and tended to work in industries (for example, IT) in which ongoing learning was both expected and encouraged.

Some young people had aspirations to undertake formal learning and complete qualifications in the future. However, how young people remember leaving school had influenced their engagement in post-school education and training to date, as well as their future plans. Generally, learning remained a positive biographical resource for the young people who left school because "It was time to leave" or because "A lot of things were happening in my life". They saw learning as something they could formally embark on at any time.

For some young people, learning and working are lightly tied within their biographies. Some young people who remember leaving school because "School was not for me" frame formal learning as something that is already "over" for them. Although future "choices" to undertake formal learning may be imposed on them (for example, as a condition of benefit receipt), this is not the future to which they aspire. For these young people, practical work they can master through doing (rather than "learning") is a valued biographical experience, and one they hope will continue. Their concern about "formal" learning in their futures tracks back biographically to their negative experiences of learning at school.

3. Young people as decision-makers, taking and making opportunities for themselves

Young people make decisions about what to do next by reflecting on what has already happened to them and their future aspirations and goals. However, the choices young people make are socially situated and reflect the resources young people can draw upon. Two issues related to "career" decision-making were raised in this research: the experience of career education while at school; and young people's skills in regards to taking and making "career" opportunities once they have left school (and especially in choosing courses and qualifications that might result in momentum towards the futures to which they aspire).

"Career guidance" while at school was experienced unevenly by the participants. Young people who left school early had no formal career guidance while at school; and those who left at the end of Year 13 remembered career guidance as something they "did", rather than as skills that they acquired. It appears that early-leavers received no formal guidance because career education is offered as "classroom task" to students in Year 13. Some early-leavers who were "pushed" from school recalled receiving some support and guidance, but this was from school counsellors who helped them get into post-school education and training courses, usually to learn "hands-on" skills.

Young people choose to enrol in post-school education and training at any time. Post-school education and training is not seen by young people as something one does on leaving school. For example, when young people do not like their jobs or they are unemployed, they seek ways to improve their circumstances by engaging with post-school education and training. Most young people make choices in the context of the information they gather from the providers of education or training courses, and/or sometimes in discussion with family members or friends. Many young people explore their "options" with little additional support and guidance as well as with little evidence of acquiring career decision-making skills, either when they were at school or forwards into the present. While young people are active decision-makers, it does not mean they are equally skilled or resourced to "know" how to decide what to do next, including assessing the consequences (that is, the likely degree of momentum) of the choices they make.

In addition, the choices young people are situated by their social backgrounds. For example, the early-leavers who later went to university had university-educated mothers; and young men choose courses congruent with male-dominated occupations while young women choose courses congruent with female-dominated occupations. Young people do not experience pressure from their parents when they choose courses; they frame those choices as their own. However, they do talk with their parents about the choices they are making and young people (and their parents) seek and make sense of provider information in this context. The young people's social backgrounds are not "tramlines" determining the choices young people make. However, some influence is apparent.

4. Adulthood marked by periods of combined employment and study through life, and commitment to marriage and parenting later in life

New temporalities across the life-course characterise a choice biography, and key life events and experiences occur at different ages and life stages than in the recent past. For example, the average age at which women become mothers has increased, as has the age of retirement. These new temporalities have particular implications for the contemporary transition to adulthood. Secure employment immediately after leaving school is rare, and continuity in employment is contingent on multiple personal and structural factors. What might have once been common (for example, motherhood by age 20) might now be less so; and what might have once been less common (leaving school at the end of Year 13) is now the norm. In addition, these changing connections between "age" and "stage" have attracted new meanings (for example, "young motherhood" or "early school-leaver"). It is in the context of new temporalities, especially in regard to education, employment and family formation, that young people "lead lives of their own".

Young mothers' lives do not follow contemporary biographical norms, because of their (biological) age when they become mothers, and because their (biographical) stage is inconsistent with the expectations of temporality that govern the lives of most. Getting young mothers "back on track" may be particularly challenging, especially given that the young mothers in this research were all early-leavers, all remembered school as "not for me" and their choices as they move their lives forward are shaped by the practical demands of motherhood. Powerful stereotypes continue to position young mothers as seeking "lifestyles" to avoid paid work. This stereotype does not hold in relation to the young mothers in this research. Before pregnancy and childbirth, their lives were moving forward through paid work, and after becoming mothers they do not imagine futures in which they are not working because they are mothers. Nevertheless, as young mothers, opportunities for momentum towards the futures to which they aspire are now constrained by their responsibilities as adults.

Concluding Comment

Young people do make choices; they decide what to do in relation to what has already happened in their lives and in relation to their future plans and aspirations. However, their choices are situated, biographically and socially. Tracks to Adulthood demonstrates how diverse biographical patterns now characterise the transition to adulthood, and these patterns reflect differences in the situated experiences (and consequences of those experiences) of young people over time. Because similar choices can result in very different consequences, refining the policy mix to enable momentum towards the independent and secure futures to which young New Zealanders aspire is likely to be most effective when one is sensitive to how these situated choices might play out differently in young people's lives.

Contact Us

Education Data Requests
If you have any questions about education data then please contact us at:
Email:      Requests EDK
Phone:    +64 4 463 8065