Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002


Michael Anderson, Frank Bechhofer, Lynn Jamieson, David McCrone, Yaojun Li and Robert Stewart (2002) 'Confidence amid Uncertainty: Ambitions and Plans in a Sample of Young Adults'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 6, no. 4, <>

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Received: 29/10/2001      Accepted: 26/2/2002      Published: 28/02/2002


The limited and sometimes contradictory published literature, mostly relating to younger age groups and non-British societies, suggests that planning and a longer time perspective are inhibited by economic insecurity, by tight structuring of the life course, and a track record of failing to achieve ambitions. This paper uses survey data, backed by qualitative interviews, to investigate planning and forethought in a sample of young adults in the Scottish town of Kirkcaldy in the late 1990s. Responses are compared with those of older age groups and of people of the same age twelve years earlier. Economic insecurity and failure to achieve ambitions had been seen by our older respondents as particularly characteristic of the lives of young adults. However, in spite of considerable sense of insecurity, the young adults we studied do in general feel in control of their lives, and do have well articulated ambitions and plans to achieve them with respect especially to work and housing. Indeed, conditions of modern life almost force many to seek to plan to some degree in these areas. Forethought and an element of planning, albeit often quite provisional in its nature, seems actually to provide some sense of security in an uncertain world. Respondents also show considerable commitment to future childbearing and partnership, though past experience of entry to both has often been fairly haphazard and there is evidence of cultural resistance to overly rational planning in such areas. Failing to achieve ambitions in the past does not affect ambitions but does limit willingness to plan for the future, especially for the long-run. Poverty and job insecurity, and also the presence of children, inhibit planning, in some cases to extreme degrees.

Ambitions; Childbearing; Forethought; Housing; Life-course; Partnership; Planning; Uncertainty; Work

The Issue

Did young adults in the late 1990s live in a world where life was so insecure and uncertain that planning ahead and generally organising their lives with a view to achieving ambitions in the future was difficult if not impossible? That this was the case was frequently claimed by a sample of older adults aged 30-70 interviewed in Kirkcaldy in 1997. This group had first been interviewed as part of the ESRC Social Change and Economic Life Initiative (SCELI) in 1986/87. Our motivation for seeking to interview them again was a suspicion, stimulated by a growing literature that implied that people today lived in more risky and uncertain society, that some aspects of planning and a sense of a secure future, which we had found to be widespread in 1986/87 (Anderson et al, 1994), had become increasingly difficult over the subsequent decade. In fact, in the 1997 sample, we found only limited evidence of this kind of change for the majority of our interviewees, though there were some significant groups who were forced to take life as it came in almost every way, and many older workers seemed to be redefining their expectations in the face of economic threat, and changing rather than downgrading the nature of their plans. Many older respondents did say to us, however, that changes in the local labour market and in family life were impacting upon people younger than themselves, many of them their own children, where insecurity and uncertainty about the future were to be found. These younger adults, they confidently asserted, were the ones who were most discouraged from planning and ordering their lives in what we here call a 'forethoughtful' manner.

Strong echoes of a declining sense of security among younger adults over the past thirty years can equally be found in much recent sociological writing on transitions to 'adulthood' and on the life course more generally. For example, the general significance of heightened awareness of risk has been diagnosed by a number of theorists of later modernity (Douglas 1992; Beck 1992; Giddens 1991), and Furlong and Cartmel (1997) have pointed to the problems of young people seeking to manage the transition to adulthood in an environment of pervasive and heightened awareness of risk. The increased uncertainty of employment for this group has been well documented (Pollock 1997; Taylor 2000), as has the growing variability of household formation, partnership formation and childbearing (Berrington and Murphy 1994; Buck et al 1994; Ermisch 2000).

In the literature on forethought and related concepts, relative stability and security have generally been seen to encourage planning and a longer time-vision, and vice versa. Thus, for example, Mayer (1965: 165) argued that security is an important prerequisite for planning: 'Taken together, longevity, social insurance systems, and more stable employment conditions allow planning, calculation and investments beyond the immediate future to the entire life', while Bergmann (1992: 115) writes that 'the extension of the time horizon into the future ... is guaranteed by a secure economy.' Under these circumstances, it is suggested, long-term planning and the risk-taking associated with it can be entered into with some confidence. If young adults do indeed perceive a greater sense of insecurity now compared with the past, then this would imply a likelihood of being more reluctant than their parents to plan ahead and commit themselves in long-term ways.

A second theme is the growing individuation of pathways from youth to adulthood. In contrast to trends between the 1920s and the 1970s (Elder 1985; Anderson 1985; Hagestad and Neugarten 1985; Nurmi 1992), recent developments in education, employment, partnership formation and child-bearing have seen a growing 'de-institutionalisation' of the life course, and a proliferation of routes from school to work and from 'living at home' to establishing 'a household of one's own' (Bynner et al 1997: 119-120; Allan and Crow 2001: 38-50). The term 'choice biography' has been used by writers such as Beck (1992) and du Bois-Reymond (1998) to describe this phenomenon.

In the literature, this growing openness of the life- course, and the increased elements of choice that it offers, is generally seen as encouraging planning and longer time-perspectives (Bergmann 1992: 88-90; Bandura 2001:11) This is consistent with Emimbayer and Mische's (1998: 1006-1009) belief that those who become well-locked into career trajectories in which they largely 'swim with the current', will tend to be less reflective on future possibilities for themselves even where their jobs require them professionally to engage in high levels of imaginative problem-solving. Similarly, Mayer (1986: 165-178) argues that 'if both institutional careers and their interlocks are firmly under external control, it is highly unlikely that ... individuals are able to form coherent and long-term life designs, and even less likely that they are able to carry these out should they ever have such life plans.' Under these circumstances, growing openness in the life-course would open up new opportunities, and perhaps a new need for choice and planning for the future.

This emphasis on the consequences of the growing openness of the life-course may, however, be misplaced. A significant body of empirical work has shown not only that this apparent openness is heavily structured but that, for many, widening choice is largely illusory, as disadvantaged origins continue to result in disadvantaged aspirations and destinations in terms of employment prospects and income (Furlong and Biggart 1999). Those who are more disadvantaged in employment and education are disproportionately represented among those who enter partnerships and parenting at young ages, often causing further disadvantage (Banks et al 1992; Bynner et al 1997). And in this context, Bynner, Ferri and Smith refer to how 'the virtuous and vicious cycles that people establish early in life tend to lead rather directly to later life patterns of 'getting on, or 'getting by' or 'getting nowhere' (Bynner et al 1997: 124 and passim). The role of the 'formative influence of past experiences' (Emimbayer and Mische (1998: 982)) has been elaborated by Heinz et al (1998) and Evans and Heinz (1993: 152). They argue that 'the extent to which young people have succeeded in developing longer-term occupational goals not only depends on past socialisation in family and school, but to a large degree on the way their identity formation was linked to challenge and rewarding experience in the passage to employment itself.... Self-confidence in youth seems to arise out of success of task, from vocational choice to labour market entry and coming to terms with changing work structures in personal decision making. "Strategic" and "taking chance" approaches to transition are expressions of this kind of individualisation.'

A third theme from the forethought literature is also relevant here. Mayer (1986) is among a number of writers who have noted that rising affluence both makes more choice available and also allows a greater possibility of risk taking, and this contrasts with the very foreshortened time perspectives that have for long in the literature been associated with much work on routine manual workers and especially the poor and unemployed (Heinz et al 1998; Bakke 1933; Klein 1965; Askham 1975]. The experience of young adults with respect to affluence is very varied, depending on employment situation, housing tenure and the extent if any of family responsibilities.

Finally, writing about teenagers, Steven Miles (2000) has suggested that, regardless of other aspects of their uncertain environment, optimism and sense of stability are generated by many young people through consumer lifestyles. He argues that '(Y)oung people exploit the flexibility they can find in their lifestyles, which make them feel as though their lives are stable, when what such lifestyles are actually providing is a resource for the negotiation of instability' (Miles 2000: 158). However, the image of youth optimism that he constructs is only very modestly future oriented, looking to the next rave or shopping spree, rather than, or, perhaps, instead of future work, housing or partnership plans. Among those in their twenties a much more diverse experience is to be expected, though the possibility that for many young people 'planning' is a way of trying to cope with insecurity is a theme to which we shall return.

Much of the work discussed above relates particularly to the experience of those in their teens and sometimes their early twenties. Much of it also relates to societies other than Britain, with its own set of experiences over the past thirty years. And, as we have seen, some of the published literature seems to lead to rather different expectations with respect to forethought, compared with those reported to us by our older respondents. This paper explores some of these issues in more detail.

A New Sample of Young Adults

In order to examine the extent to which young people plan for the future, we carried out in 1999 a survey in Kirkcaldy, 'Telling the Future: Individual and Household Plans among the Younger Adults' (hereafter TTF). The interview schedule was based on that for our earlier (1997) survey, 'Individual and Household Strategies: A Decade of Change? '(hereafter DCS), but included more material on partnership and parenting in particular. In both surveys, we used a technique which we had first employed in the SCELI of putting some questions into self-completion booklets. As the interviewer asked the questions, these were filled in separately by the respondent and their partner (if present). The sample consists of 204 randomly selected households containing an adult aged between 20 and 29. There are 110 'single' individuals (in the sense, used throughout here, of non-partnered rather than never married) and 94 couples (all male plus female), but 30 partners in the couple households failed to provide information on most or all items in the questionnaire. The survey thus yielded data on 268 individuals; when partners aged less than 20 or over 30 are excluded the number of cases falls to 246.

The focus of this paper is on a group of people aged 20-29 interviewed in 1999. Through our survey data we are able to compare, often using identical questions, the plans and expectations of these young adults with 126 people then of the same age interviewed in Kirkcaldy as part of the SCELI survey in 1986 and 1987, and the traced members of this latter group and their older peers re-interviewed, with their current partners if any, in 1997 when they were ten years older. For the two more recently interviewed groups we also have data from intensive interviews with groups of respondents (and their partners where appropriate) selected to throw further light on processes which the survey suggested were of special interest. These throw particular light on how our respondents describe their 'pathways', both prospective and retrospective, through life, and the factors that affect them.

Hardship, Insecurity and Lack of Control

The comments of our older respondents outlined at the start of the paper, and much of the sociological literature discussed there, seem to suggest that many young adults experience enhanced levels of hardship, insecurity and lack of control over their lives. Our first and important conclusion is that, while there is evidence to suggest that, on average, in 1999 our sample of young adults, both male and female[1], do indeed experience (or perceive themselves as experiencing) some greater sense of insecurity and uncertainty than the older sample interviewed two years earlier, they are not any more insecure than their age peers of a dozen years before. What is more, in spite of some sense of insecurity, most tell us that they do feel in control of their lives - indeed, in this regard they respond more positively than any group we have previously interviewed.

Many of these young adults had come under some financial pressure in the previous two years. Forty per cent of those aged 20-24 and 28 per cent of those aged 25-29 reported that at present they were finding it very or quite difficult to make ends meet.[2] These figures are markedly higher than those for any of the older groups aged 30-70 (just 16 per cent for those aged 30-39 for example), and are similar to the average of 35 per cent for the same age group over a decade earlier.[3]

In terms, however, of a wider sense of security and control over their lives, the contrasts both with older members of the population in 1997, and with their age peers of a dozen years before, are much less marked. For example, of those in work in the 1999 sample of 20-29 year olds, just 10 per cent thought that it was very or quite likely that they would become unemployed within the next twelve months. This is very similar to the 12 per cent of 30-39 year olds in 1997 and 13 per cent of the 20-29 year olds interviewed in Kirkcaldy in 1987.

The relative confidence of the TTF age group is likely to reflect, at least in part, the improving labour market in Kirkcaldy in the late 1990s compared with the mid-1980s (for example, unemployment in the Kirkcaldy TTWA fell from 16.9 per cent to 9.1 per cent between April 1987 and April 1999). Perhaps most interesting of all, however, as Table 1 shows, is the relatively very high proportion of 20-29 year olds who in 1999 said that they felt that the statement 'What happens to me is my own doing' was the one that applied to them, rather than 'I feel that I have little influence over the things that happen to me'[4]

Table 1: Percentage saying that they feel that 'What happens to me is my own doing'
YearAge group% responding positivelyN=
60 and over6879

Those aged 23 and over are likely to feel better off and more secure, and thus more able to plan than they had felt five years before, and presumably see no reason why this should not continue. This is perhaps to be expected as part of the life course at that age, which may explain the sense of being in control of their destiny. Interestingly, however, the data also show broad similarities with the older group in 1997, especially bearing in mind that the latter group was asked to make the comparison over ten rather than five years. These data then do not suggest enhanced levels of hardship, insecurity and lack of control over their lives among the younger groups in our samples.

Table 2: Comparisons of present situation with the past, with respect to financial situation, security and ability to plan (row percentages)
AgePeriod of comparisonMore/
About the sameLess/
Financial situation23-295 years582418168
30-3910 years78161663
40 and over10 years462926235
Security23-295 years602614168
30-3910 years54291863
40 and over10 years324622235
Able to plan23-295 years672311168
30-3910 years62251363
40 and over10 years373726235

In contrast to this quite widespread relatively positive and proactive view of the present and the future (a situation strongly endorsed also in our intensive interviews), there is nevertheless a significant minority, notably many members of the working class, the unemployed and lone mothers, but also quite a few married couples with children (in contrast to the childless), who hold less positive views of the world. We shall further explore this, and its implications, later in the paper.

Ambitions and the Exercise of Forethought along Life's Journey

The young adults in our sample, then, do seem to feel that they are no less in control of what happens to them than do their elders, and a majority report that things have improved on a number of related fronts. Do they nevertheless, as those same elders had suggested to us, feel inhibited in their aspirations for the future and plans to achieve them?

For a very considerable proportion of our sample, this does not seem to be the case in terms of aspirations and ambitions. In the intensive interviews nearly everyone expressed fairly clear ideas about how they would like at least some aspects of their lives to develop over the next few years, What is more, significant numbers had quite well articulated ambitions and many were actively considering a range of 'options', a word they frequently used. Our survey data tell the same story.

In both our recent surveys, we asked a series of questions on ambitions and planning, both retrospectively and prospectively. Early in this sequence, we asked all respondents whether, looking ahead over the next five or so years, they had any ambitions for themselves or their households. Fully 87 per cent of those aged 20-24 responded yes to this question, as did 71 per cent of those aged 25-29. By contrast, for the whole of the group aged 30 and over in 1997, the figure was just 47 per cent, and only 59 per cent for those aged 30-39. Not surprisingly, fewer respondents identified ambitions over an even longer timescale, 'say the next ten to fifteen years'. Nevertheless, 43 per cent of the 20-29 group, and 44 per cent of both the 30-39 and 40-49 age groups reported ambitions of some kind.[5]

Not only did these young adults report ambitions, but most of them also have 'plans', significant numbers planning ahead over substantial periods of time, frequently in considerable detail. And, yet again, they did so in numbers very similar to the older age cohorts. In a sequence of questions, we first asked whether they were someone who planned some things at least a few days ahead. We then raised the period through a few weeks, a few months, a year or more, until we received the answer 'no', and finally whether they tried to make plans for as much as a lifetime. Only 12 per cent of the 20-29 age group did not even make plans for a few days ahead, compared with 12 per cent for the age group 30 and over (with little age variation within it). Similar consistency appears in terms of planning for at least a few weeks or a few months ahead (75 per cent for age group 20-29, compared with a range of 66 per cent to 84 per cent for the four older age cohorts) and for a year or more ahead, where 26 per cent of the 20-29 group responded positively and between 22 per cent and 28 per cent of the older cohorts. We then asked those who made any plans how detailed these were. Three out of five (63%) of those aged 20-24 said that their plans were very or fairly detailed, half of those aged 25-29, and a third of those aged 30-39; the figures for the three remaining cohorts were in the range 40 per cent to 48 per cent. This pattern of responses by age does give some confidence that many of our young adults really are thinking in some kind of planful way, rather than just talking about it.

Forethought in Specific Areas of Life

As we have found in our earlier work on planning both in the 1980s and when looking at the 30 to 70 year old group in DCS, young adults are unlikely to organise their lives prospectively in equal detail and over equal timescales across all aspects of their lives.

Work and Employment

Again as we found for other groups in our earlier work, young adults aged 20-29 were especially prone to think ahead in some detail and for quite long periods of time with respect to work and employment. In all three surveys (SCELI; DCS; TTF) we asked questions about whether people in their last year at school had a clear view of the kind of job that they would like to have later in life. We also asked people to think about their working life over the next five years. In the two latest surveys we also asked people to tell us in which areas they had ambitions.

Some results from these various questions are shown in Table 3 for our most recent surveys.[6] Compared with earlier cohorts, when they were in their last year at school, our latest sample of young adults seem to have been rather clearer about what type of job they wanted to do later in life. They are also at least as likely as are the older respondents, and perhaps rather more likely than the 30-39 cohort, to know definitely what they want to do in their working lives over the next five years, or at least to have a rough idea.[7] Men were more sure than women; in TTF, 42 per cent of men and 25 per cent of women knew definitely, while 18 per cent of men and 35 per cent of women were not sure or did not know. As Table 3 also shows, those with fairly clear views seem in general to be quite or very optimistic that they will achieve their aims, but what is particularly noticeable is the rather higher proportion of those who are not very sure what they want to do who nevertheless are optimistic and think they will be able to get the jobs they want.[8] Older groups seem to be more realistic or disillusioned, a picture that also comes through in our intensive interview work. Nor, among our 20-29 year olds, do these expectations seem to involve just casual whims. Of those who have partners, 78 per cent had discussed their work plans with them, a figure far higher than the 51 per cent in the 30-39 age group or 59 per cent in the 40- 49 age group.

Table 3: Expectations about future employment
TTF 20-29DCS 30- 39DCS 40-49DCS 50-59
Clear view in last year at school:
Percent responding 'Yes'50383538
Thoughts about working life over next five years
(column percentages):
Know definitely what want to do33193234
(and expect will be able to do)(89)(83)(75)(95)
Have a rough idea
(and expect things will turn out that way)(54)(64)(73)(68)
Not very sure what want to do26241515
(but expect to be able to get jobs wanted)(40)(21)(30)(0)
Don't know/don't intend to work25819

In addition, right at the end of the survey we asked respondents to rate a number of areas of life on a ten-point scale from 'Never make any plans for this' to 'Make very detailed plans'. 'Work' had by far the highest number (39 per cent) making 'very detailed plans', and 70 per cent of respondents, men significantly more than women, ticked one of the top three boxes, while just two per cent, by far the lowest figure on any of the areas of life offered, said that they 'never made any plans for this'. The vast majority of young people undertake some degree of planning as regards work, and it fits with the fact that by far the largest number of responses in terms of what it is that people have ambitions to do (126 for the 246 respondents) relate to work, in particular to getting a job, getting a new job, getting promotion, and setting up own business.

One possible explanation for this relatively high level of forethought and expectation about work is that these younger adults have had much greater exposure both at school and, where relevant, at post-school levels, to varying types of careers guidance of a much more formal kind than in the past, while older cohorts have both been exposed to less of this and also respond with more realism, sometimes engendered by hard experience, to questions on how they see their lives as likely to turn out (an issue to which we return in more detail in a later section).


Another area where large numbers of the young adults in our 20-29 age group appear consciously forward-thinking and proactive is with respect to housing. In the set of questions noted above where we asked respondents to rate themselves across a number of areas on a ten point scale from 'Never make any plans for this' to 'Make very detailed plans', housing was the second most highly ranked area, with 55 per cent putting it on one of the top three scores and just 8 per cent saying they never made any plans for it. Housing produced also the second largest number of responses in terms of specific ambitions over the next five or so years, 49 across the 246 respondents, in particular, focused on moving and buying a new house.

The responses have to be seen against a background of a growing awareness of choice in the housing market, the steep decline in the availability of council accommodation in recent years (which has been particularly marked in Scotland), and the general prejudices in favour of home ownership which are now part of the socialisation processes of the young (Rowlands and Gurney 2000), though perhaps slightly less so than fifteen years ago (Ford 1999). More than half (54 per cent) of couples in the TTF sample said they had long-term plans for housing when they set up home together compared with less than half (44%) of the 30-39s, and one in five (18%) of the 60 and over age groups. Also, more than half of the 20-29 group had plans to move house within the next five years, with almost all saying that they thought this was at least 'quite likely' to happen. Two fifths of non-homeowners said that they had plans to buy a house.

These young adults were also heavily involved in home improvement of different kinds. Larger proportions of home owners among those aged 25- 29 compared with older groups had plans to make one or more specific major improvements to their present house, and more than four fifths (markedly higher than any of the older DCS age groups) had plans for minor improvements.

Accepting that the older groups may have already achieved many of their housing plans, what is crucial is that these figures, like the others we have presented, do not suggest a group reluctant to plan for the future. Clearly articulated ideas about future housing and DIY plans, and the medium- or long-term thinking associated with it, comes out very clearly in many of the intensive interviews. While we identified few couples who had a lifetime strategy for housing of the kind articulated so effectively by Pahl (1984), we did have some interviewees who already had their housing plans clearly formulated, at least in outline, up until the time of retirement.

Such attitudes are obviously in part necessitated by the long-term nature of mortgages, but also seem to reflect a widely held view that housing is more than just somewhere to live; it is genuinely seen as an investment. Thus, implicitly, the response that housing is an investment implies long term foresight.[9]

Even in the 1987 SCELI survey, when home- owners aged 20-29 were asked to state what had the greatest influence over their decision to buy their own home when they first did, 65 per cent gave 'It was a good investment' as their first choice and 9 per cent as their second. Among our 20-29 year olds in 1999, no fewer than 63 per cent of couples who had plans when they set up home together said they planned to use their house as a long-term investment thus suggesting a similarly long-term view; this compared with 58 per cent of the four older cohorts taken as a whole, but 78 per cent of those now aged 30-39. When home owners were asked from a list of reasons why they owned their own house most 20-29 year olds (85 per cent of owners) saw it 'as a long-term investment', followed by 76 per cent who endorsed 'to give you more security in old age' and 73 per cent of those with children who replied 'to leave something worthwhile to the children'. This is clearly a highly foresightful set of reasons for a group of 20-29 year olds, and the figures are very similar to or in some cases actually higher than those in older age groups, where one might perhaps intuitively have expected higher commitment to these areas.

Partnerships and Parenting

We suggested in our earlier work that romance and spontaneity have long been 'expected to dominate at least most people's thoughts about these key aspects of their lives, and indeed chance, at most structurally constrained, is probably still an important determinant of actual outcomes' (Anderson et al, 1994, p.42). There is however no reason to conclude that the data we present below lend support to the thesis that in these uncertain times people live for the present, and that uncertainty makes forethought bound to fail. Certainly, there was no sign of a flight from childbearing or a commitment to a long-term relationship at some point.[10] Nearly all (96 per cent) of our 20-29 year olds think that it is at least quite likely that they will live with someone by the age of 45 or have already done so. Nearly nine out of ten (88%) are or have already been married or say that they expect to be at some time in the future. More than nine out of ten (93%) already have a child or hope to have at least one, almost identical the 95 per cent of SCELI respondents of this age from more than a decade ago.

Nor do these young adults exhibit casual short- term attitudes when they begin living with someone. In self-completion questions, 80 per cent of those who had started their current relationship by cohabiting said that even at that time they had considered it to be 'permanent'. Of those currently cohabiting, half (49%) said that they were planning to marry their partner, a further 27 per cent that they would probably get married to him/her at some point, and another 19 per cent that they probably would just keep living together without marriage. Just 5 per cent of respondents said that they had not thought about it or did not know.

By contrast, the survey data show, backed up by our intensive interviews, that for many people setting up home together did not follow the relatively long processes of planning necessarily involved for the majority whose partnerships had begun with marriage. Only a third of those living in any kind of relationship and aged 20-24 (including those who had not cohabited before marriage) said that setting up home together was something that they had 'planned for some time'. Our intensive interviews suggest that moving in together was often something that happened almost by chance, and for quite pragmatic and even unromantic reasons. What seems to be happening, then, especially among our younger respondents, is that people enter relationships when it seems expedient or when the time is ripe. Even though relationships are not anticipated and planned, they are expected to be permanent.

As in the SCELI survey of twelve years previously, we asked people in self-completion questions to choose reasons why they got married or set up home together when they did. All responses which drew at least ten percent of the replies in at least one of the surveys are shown in Table 4.[11]

Table 4: Reasons why those currently in partnerships set up home together when they did, TTF and SCELI 20-29 year olds only (percent responding 'Yes')
We fell in love and couldn't live without each other6280
The time had come when I wanted to live with a sexual partner3131
Rented accommodation became available2118
I/my partner was pregnant208
We'd got enough money together to get a house1527
I was at a suitable point in my work life1422
My partner was at a suitable point in his/her work life117
I wanted to commit myself to our relationship66N/A

These figures, explaining why an action took place when it did relate to the end point of a process of decision which, as is clear in the previous paragraph, will have been of varying length. Having decided in principle to get married or set up home together, something triggered the action. It would be dangerous to interpret the comparisons between SCELI and TTF in Table 4 as necessarily implying a decline in planning over the twelve year period. Certainly, pregnancy, presumably though by no means certainly involving lack of forethought, has markedly increased as a factor, albeit still only to one in five of the sample. But having saved up enough for a house or being at a suitable point in one's own work life might have declined as reasons because changes in the timing of partnership formation and/or in young adults' economic situation meant these things were already in place at the time that they first contemplated setting up home together. Adding the 'commitment' option in the TTF survey, stimulated by recent work on cohabitation and addressed in another paper, may have affected the use of the apparently rather spontaneous but also highly conventional 'We fell in love and couldn't live without each other' response, though interviewees were allowed to tick as many reasons as they wished. The high level of response to the commitment option does seem, however, to support the view that a high proportion did see the partnership as one which had at least a medium-term future, whatever the degree of forethought that preceded the decision to establish a home.

In SCELI and TTF, we asked a largely identical series of self-completion questions about what factors were important for people in partnerships in influencing the point in their lives when they had their first child together.[12]

Table 5 compares the results from the two surveys.

Table 5: Factors influencing the point in life when first child was had, TTF and SCELI 20-29 year olds only (percent responding 'Yes')
I/my partner became pregnant unexpectedly6539
I wanted to start a family before we were too old3340
We thought we were then in a position to give a child the time and attention he/she needed/deserved2245
I'd always planned to start a family at that time1921
We had reached the stage in our lives when we could afford to have a child13N/A
I felt the time had come when we could manage on only one/a lower income for some time722

Less than a fifth (and only a seventh of those under 25) said that they had always planned to start a family at that time, an almost identical figure to that in SCELI for the same age group a dozen years before. Compared with SCELI, however, the proportion who responded positively to the clearly foresightful 'time and attention' option was much reduced. By contrast, in TTF, almost two thirds (and 79 percent of those under 25) said that their partner became pregnant unexpectedly, and this low level of planning seems to be confirmed by responses to another question when we asked explicitly: 'When you had your first child with your present partner, was this planned or did it just happen unexpectedly?' In reply to this question, only 35 per cent responded that the timing was planned.

Many of these couples almost certainly did intend to have a child at some time, but these data do suggest that some combination of lack of forethought or lack of effective action in support of such forethought was present for many of the couples who we interviewed, something that is clearly confirmed by many of the intensive interviews where it is clear that unexpected pregnancy frequently forced major changes in both short and longer term life plans with respect to housing, education, work and other areas of life. As with the previous question, however, it is important to remember that something will not be given as a reason if it was never problematic. Thus couples who were always 'in a position to give a child the time and attention he/she needed' or had always been able to afford to have a child would not choose that option.

Foresight in other Areas of Life

What of the possible exercise of forethought and planning in other areas of people's lives? A range of questions again revealed that there were significant numbers of our young adult respondents who were taking a lengthy view of their futures. For example, only 20 per cent said that they had given no thought at all to the question of retirement, while 45 per cent replied that they had given 'some, 'quite a lot' or 'a great deal', a larger number than might perhaps have been expected at such an early age.[13] Two-thirds (66%) of households were saving at least to the extent of trying 'to put a bit aside from time to time'. We asked those who did save what they saved for, and there was a wide range of responses. Holidays and travel (46 per cent of those who saved) was the most common thing saved for, followed by unexpected emergencies (37 per cent), new clothes (36 per cent), home improvements (35 per cent), children's birthdays/Christmas (33 per cent) and new furniture (27 per cent). At the other extreme, with clearly much longer-term intentions, 11 per cent were saving towards a deposit on a house, and 8 per cent to pass something on to their children. 51 per cent of households had a mortgage, another clear long-term liability and investment, with no fewer than 29 per cent of these having plans to pay it off early. A small but significant proportion of our respondents were also involved in other medium or long-term financial activities. One in twelve (8%) had an ISA or a PEP, and 13 per cent owned stocks and shares in some other way.

Another area we investigated can be seen as involving defensive foresight, and that is insurance. In general there were quite high levels of insurance, with 61 per cent of respondents saying they had an endowment or life insurance,[14] and 18 per cent private medical insurance. However, only 72 per cent of households had (or at least knew they had) their house contents covered by insurance, and, of those with a car, only 69 per cent had fully comprehensive insurance. Most of these insurance levels are below, in some cases markedly below, those of the older DCS cohorts. Nevertheless, significant numbers were looking ahead in the interests of their family. Over half (56%) of respondents with children said that they were planning their lives 'a great deal' with a view to ensuring that their children did well educationally, and 36 per cent said they were planning their lives in this way 'quite a lot'. On the other hand, only 9 per cent (though 15 per cent of married partners with children) had made wills.

Forethought with the Aid of Hindsight

Despite the uncertainties and hardships that they undoubtedly sometimes experience, most of our young adult respondents do exercise forethought in a range of ways and often, in certain areas of their lives, over quite long future time-spans. The exercise of forethought is a complex process affected by the varying resources, financial and cultural, which people possess. A crucial resource is information acquired by experiences, beneficial or harmful, and it is reasonable to hypothesise that as people get older their experiences and those of people close to them come to play a larger role. The social science literature reviewed at the start of this paper would support this proposition.

Our work on older age groups makes clear that ambitions are often not achieved and that, indeed, as people age, more and more of them will begin to tailor their hopes and actions to the practical exigencies of life in their own particular positions in the social structure. They seek to defend what they have achieved or remain where they are rather than to advance further or move in new proactive directions. To what extent do past experiences affect the views that our younger respondents have about their futures?

Certainly, most of our young adult TTF respondents, especially those in their late 20s, have already encountered success or failure in the labour and housing markets, and in personal relationships.[15] It is clear that much of what has happened to them so far has not been a direct outcome of forethought and planning; chance and opportunity clearly impact very considerably on outcomes (for example, only 41 per cent of those who had changed jobs in the last five years said they had been thinking about it for some time rather than that the opportunity had just come up).

How, more generally, did our 1999 young adult respondents think that their lives had gone so far? At the start of the last section of the interviews, we asked them to look back on their lives since the age of about 16 and tell us whether things turned out as they would have hoped or expected[16]. Very few (just 7 per cent) answered that it had turned out very much as they expected, but 27 per cent said that it was 'pretty much as' they expected, 31 per cent said 'not really' as expected and 36 per cent said 'quite differently' from expected; there was almost no difference between those in their early and those in their late twenties, nor by gender, in these responses. We also asked those who had long-term ambitions when they were about 16 whether they had achieved them.[17] 13 per cent replied 'Entirely', 34 per cent 'Quite a lot', 15 per cent 'Not much' and 38 per cent 'Not at all'. If, of course, these ambitions were things they hoped to achieve over twenty or thirty years then these responses are not at all surprising.

From our intensive interviews it is clear that past failures or difficulties are a major deterrent to long term planning. Table 6 shows more formally from the survey how past experience has an independent role to play. Indicators are derived here from four questions: the two questions about how life had turned out and achievement of ambitions discussed above; and two questions that asked those aged 23 and over to compare their present state of finances and of financial security with their situation five years ago. Ambitions do not seem to be greatly affected by past experience, but time span of planning and changed ability to plan clearly are.

Table 6: Ambitions and plans by past experiences

ThoseWho are Less Foresightful

In any society, chance and opportunity do not strike at random but are highly structured by differential access to resources and by socially constraining sets of interpersonal relationships. In terms of our young adults it is not merely success or failure of hopes and plans that are influenced in this way but, in some but not all aspects of foresight, also the very ability or willingness to engage in forward-looking activity at all.

In our intensive interviews, three sets of factors, each of which relates in some way to the more general factors affecting forethought outlined in the introduction, appear with great regularity as factors that influence people's patterns of planning: access to resources, past experience, and the presence or absence of children (in this case often as a statement of personal comparison over time, in that children directly inhibit planning or are themselves only planned when other plans are achieved, or become themselves the prime focus of planning at the expense of other areas of life; in terms of the literature, children may be seen as restricting options or openness). Nevertheless, while planning may be inhibited or modified by these factors, most of our respondents, as we have already seen, continue to have ambitions or hopes about the future.

Table 7: Ambitions and plans by access to resources
ClassSMIEmploy statusMaking ends meet
Ambitions for next 5 years:
Percent responding 'Yes878772836776857976777980
Longer term ambitions:
Percent responding 'Yes404443354749394054473252
Span of planning (column percent):
Year or more412422423614123114402020
Days or less112032211139372430212727
Of those who plan at least for days,
percent stating that:
it is likely that plans will succeed717763806551476947885949
have more than one plan at a time816763666765536859776365
plans are not pipe dreams766958776354596559617061
Compared with 5 years ago (column percent):
more able to plan867957935165407241886646
neither more or less able to plan9182973722352136123223
less able to plan631401113257230231

As the figures shown in Tables 7 and 8 reveal, what people say in the intensive interviews seems to be almost entirely borne out by the questionnaire responses.

Table 7 looks at the impact of four indicators of access to resources: class, standardised mean income (for those living in their own households only)[18], employment status, and couple's responses to the question 'Thinking about your household's current financial situation, please tick the box that best describes how easy or difficult you find it to make ends meet'. In the questionnaire for single people the word 'household' was omitted. The results here are combined. The data suggest that, whichever measure is used (and they are all to some extent correlated), access to resources has rather little impact on ambitions, but significantly more on time-span of planning and especially a willingness to make plans for a year or more.[19] It also has a marked impact on confidence that plans will succeed and on the realism of plans. Those with fewer resources seem also to be forced to restrict the range of their planning in that they are less likely to have more than one plan on the go at any one time. Access to resources also has a marked impact on perceptions of an improvement over the past five years in ability to plan. All in all, then, having a degree of control over resources is, for many people, one key requirement for confident long-term planning.

Table 8: Ambitions and plans by presence or absence of children
with childrenwithout childrenwith childrenwithout childrenwith childrenwithout children
Ambitions for next 5 years:
Percent responding 'Yes798179956578
Longer term ambitions:
Percent responding 'Yes45 4546533733
Span of planning (column percent):
Year or more142423681744
Days or less35212953122
Compared with 5 years ago (column percent):
more able to plan557258836093
neither more or less able to plan22222717277
less able to plan227150130

Table 8 suggests, even though the number of cases is in some columns quite small when partnership status is controlled for, that the presence of children seems to act as a major deterrent to planning. Further work, for which there is no space here, is needed to explore this further because the availability of resources, constraints on time, itself a resource, and possibly a re-focusing of aspirations on children are all likely to bear on this finding.


We began with an observation commonly made among our older respondents that young adults were experiencing a level of insecurity and an inability to plan their lives which was significantly worse than these older respondents' own position either now or earlier in their lives. We also noted that there was a range of social science literature which suggested that those experiencing uncertainty and low resources would be particularly likely to show limited exercise of forethought and forward planning, though this literature also noted that a more 'open' society in which people were free to or forced to make more choices in their lives might encourage a more planful approach to life, especially among those who had already experienced a track record of successful achievement of their goals.

Our studies of a group of 20-29 year olds in Kirkcaldy, have shown that a significant majority of this group, in spite of quite high levels of uncertainty about their futures nevertheless feel in control of their lives and feel able to plan for them across a wide range of areas of life. Indeed, one plausible interpretation of our data is that uncertainty has positively encouraged many young men and women to take more responsibility for their own lives.[20]

Reflecting on the questionnaire data in DCS and TTF, and their respective intensive interviews, it is clear that the older generation sees their children's cohort as lacking many of the securities that they themselves experienced, security that allowed them to have quite clear expectations of the way that their lives, in work, housing and family building were likely to go, even though they were not necessarily in a position to plan actually to change them. Theirs was a generation in which a high proportion married, and married at a young age, and, for a large proportion of the men at least, work was available of a kind which appeared to offer a reasonably secure job for life. Our earlier work also showed a widespread wish even in the 1980s to stay clear of debt, and a tendency, especially by the time we re-interviewed them in 1997, to focus their planning on trying to secure what they had rather than to look for new experiences or challenges.

The situation of their children's generation is very different. The relative 'de-institutionalisation' of the life-course noted at the start of this paper, with the extreme and markedly increased flexibility of youth transitions that characterise it in the UK today compared with even the 1970s (Bynner 2001), means that there are many fewer even apparent certainties in terms of employment, that there is a range of broadly accepted options over the fact, the form, and the timing of partnership formation and child-bearing, and that the setting up of a home, while involving a marked level of choice over when and how it is done, will almost certainly involve a continuing level of debt.

But these uncertainties emphatically do not mean that these young adults fail to think ahead and make plans - indeed, in line with the social science research cited earlier on the impact of openness on forethought, many young people positively have to consider the various possible futures and to make at least provisional choices between them, if they are to make progress at all in establishing themselves as independent adults in a post-modern society. Inevitably, however, these acts of forethought have in very many cases a much larger element of provisionality about them, than the ways forward that their parents' generation could develop (du Bois-Reymond 1998). In some senses, too, the mere fact of having plans (especially in such areas as housing and education) may be a way of creating for oneself at least a sense of some security amidst a sea of uncertainty.[21]

While most of those who we interviewed had hopes and ambitions not all young adults are equally able to make plans. Crucially, there are significant sub-groups whose level of resources are so low, or whose family responsibilities are so tying, that they have very little flexibility but are largely stuck, at least at present, where they are. At best they may develop approaches to life designed to stave off even worse disasters or to provide some possible relief from their current straits. For example, in our intensive interviews, many lone mothers emphasised how thinking about their own future, including their prospects for partnership and work, was constrained by the task of caring for their child. There were also some couples who for one reason or another had got into serious debt and were now in the midst of very consciously developed schemes to rebuild their finances, seeking to create a firm platform from which they would only be able to move forward or upward when it was established - if, indeed, they would ever dare to have longer-term aspirations and plans at all. And, finally, there was a small group where any kind of forethought beyond the end of the week was seen as either pointless or positively dangerous. In this regard, little has changed since SCELI.

Finally, although employment, housing and family relationships are interwoven in complex ways, young people often claim to be less planful in the latter domain, despite sometimes acknowledging forethoughtful actions such as discussing how to fit together children and work. Among single respondents, it seems that the resource rich as well as the resource poor have rather vague plans in terms of partnering and parenting, beyond wishing to have partners and children at some stage. Among couples, the majority of our sample claimed to lack any prior plan in terms of the timing of setting up home together or of their first child. It seems that this is an area in which the cultural taboos against planning, which we emphasised in our earliest work, persist; for example 'to go looking' for a partner or to manage the timing of the birth of a wanted child can be presented as a crass or even counterproductive over-rationality that lacks the valued spontaneity of personal life. This denial of planning does not of course mean an absence of any exercise of forethought in this domain. Rather it means that research exploring the interplay of future orientations to employment, housing, partnership and parenting needs more subtle approaches, particularly when it also necessary to understand the dynamic of negotiation within a couple. We believe that our work on forethought has conceptually and empirically helped clear the ground for further progress on these issues.


1Throughout this paper, we in general treat our young adults as a group, regardless of gender. We do this because, with very few exceptions, there are no major differences in patterns of forethought by gender. Where marked differences are observable, they are specifically noted.

2Overall, 40 per cent of women compared with 26 per cent of men said that they found it difficult to make ends meet. This can mainly be attributed to the situation of lone mothers and is picked up under that heading below.

3In TTF the question was asked about ease of making ends meet for the household where there were couples and for the individual where the respondent was single. In DCS the question was related to individuals. For full details of the questionnaires used in the study, see the schedules held by the ESRC Data Archive at the University of Essex and available on-line at

4The question here was: Which of these statements best describes the way you feel? (a) what happens to me is my own doing; (b) I feel that I have little influence over things that happen to me. This is a standard measure of perceived control derived from Rotter (1966) and is discussed by Warr (1987, p. 30).

5A modest but statistically significant gender difference is observable here: 50 per cent of males but only 37 per cent of females had longer term ambitions of this kind

6The exact wordings of the questions were: 'When you were in your last year at school, did you have any clear view about the type of job you'd like to have later on in life - say by age 40' and 'Now thinking ahead about your working life over the next five years or so, would you say: ... you know definitely what you want to do/ you have a rough idea of how you want things to go/ you're not very sure what you want to do in relation to work in the next five years/ don't intend to work within the next five years'.

7In SCELI, when the DCS 30-39 group were themselves aged 20- 29, 40 per cent of a then slightly larger group of individuals said that they had a clear view in their last year at school, a figure reassuringly similar to the answers that they gave eleven years later.

8Though numbers are small and the differences are not statistically significant, it does seem likely that there were some gender differences here, though not among those who 'knew definitely' what they wanted to do. By contrast, of those who had a rough idea, 60% of men but only 49% of women 'expected that things would turn out that way', and among those who were 'not very sure', 39% of men and 56% of women thought they would have to take whatever jobs came up.

9Graham Crow has, however, suggested to us an important additional reason why people in an insecure world may wish to become owner-occupiers: it provides a greater access to credit and thus an ability to borrow on the basis of the investment.

10For a discussion of the latter among members of our sample, see Jamieson et al (2002) and UK-wide see Ermisch (2000) and Ermisch and Francesconi (2000).

11'I wanted to commit myself to our relationship' was only asked in TTF, and was put last in the list, while 'We fell in love...' was first, thus separating the two responses as far as possible with the aim of minimising cross-contamination.

12The questions were largely identical in the two surveys. However, in addition to some substitutions which did not reach the ten percent threshold, the 1980s question 'I felt that the time had come when we could manage on only one income for a while' was replaced by what was arguably the more appropriate 1990s question 'I felt that the time had come when we could manage on a lower income for a while'. Also 'We thought we were then in a position to give a child the time and attention he/she deserved' was replaced by 'We thought we were then in a position to give a child the time and attention he/she needed', and 'We had reached the stage in our lives when we could afford to have a child' was added to the list.

13There was a marked gender effect here, with 67% of women but only 41% of men responding that they had given not very much or no thought at all to the issue; for comparative data on older age groups see Anderson et al. (2000).

14Endowment insurance may of course be a form of pro-active long-term financial planning rather than defensive and in some cases will have been taken out in connection with house purchase, a topic we have already discussed above.

15This is in addition to a general process of downgrading of aspirations which seems to be a widespread feature of teenage experience (Furlong and Biggart 1999).

16 The question wording was 'Looking back on your life so far, and thinking about what you expected when your were about 16 years old, has it turned out [as you expected]?'

17The question, asked only of those who had ambitions, read 'Do you feel that you have achieved [the long-term] ambitions [that you had when you were about 16]?'

18Standardised mean income (SMI) is a variable derived from reported household income in the case of couples to take into account the number of persons in the household and their age. In the case of single persons we asked for their personal income and have only derived SMI for those living on their own or with their children and no other person. For single people living with their parents or with other adults we do not have a measure of household income because we decided that, given the constraints of interview time, we could not obtain a sufficiently accurate estimate.

19A logistic regression model indicates that income is the crucial variable determining long-term planning in this sample with those whose income is above the median being around four times more likely to report long-term planning than those below the median.

20While these results specifically relate to Kirkcaldy, we see no reason to doubt their wider applicability to much of the UK. The Kirkcaldy travel to work area contains a mix of old declining industry and residential areas alongside newer technology activity and housing especially in Glenrothes New Town. There are also substantial commuting opportunities to Edinburgh. Unemployment has been somewhat above both the Scottish and UK average since the mid-1980s.

21We are grateful to Liz Kenyon for alerting us to this idea.


This paper, like all those arising from this project, is the product of a collegiate form of working in which the fieldwork, the analysis and the drafts of the papers have been discussed by the entire research team throughout. The first author has been responsible for initially drafting this paper, carrying out analyses and revisions and seeing it into print; the names of the other authors are in random order. The DCS project was conceived and designed by the principal investigators Michael Anderson, Frank Bechhofer and David McCrone, and funded by a grant (R 000236922) from the Economic and Social Research Council. For the TTF project, which was funded by ESRC grant R 000238020, Lynn Jamieson joined the team of principal investigators. The survey questionnaires were designed by the research team and the fieldwork carried out by Public Attitude Surveys (PAS). We are also grateful to the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex, and especially Dr Heather Laurie, for helping commission and pilot the surveys, data checking and cleaning, and carrying out occupational coding. We are grateful to Liz Kenyon, Sue Heath, Nick Buck, Graham Crow and Andy Furlong for some extremely interesting comments on an earlier version of this paper and for helpful suggestions by three anonymous referees. We are, of course, entirely responsible for the way in which we have used or not used their advice.


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