School’s out forever. So what’s next?

You’re 18. You got your Leaving Cert results on Wednesday. Welcome to the rest of your potentially 120-year-long life


For tens of thousands of 18-year-olds who woke up around Ireland on Thursday morning, school really is out forever. As they digest their Leaving Cert results, they are about to embark on the next phase of their lives.

They were just nine when Mark Zuckerburg and his friends invented Facebook, and as they entered their teens Ireland officially entered recession. The nature of work has changed. Many of their older brothers and sisters have emigrated. Their life expectancy will increase dramatically. Their education will be different. So what does the future hold for these 55,000 students?

Malcolm Byrne of the Higher Education Authority says 2013 was “probably one of the best years in which to do the Leaving Certificate”.

Most of the students who got their results on Wednesday were born in 1995, a year when the birth rate in Ireland had fallen significantly. “It means the numbers going through the school system were lower,” he says, and at the same time “there have never been as many first-year [third-level] places available to them. So it’s good news for them.”

One of the biggest changes will be something they’re already well versed in. “Those going into college now are digital natives: they are used to using technology, and higher-education institutions have responded to that,” says Byrne. “Programmes are delivered either entirely online or by blended learning – a mix of some stuff being delivered online and some directly in the classroom or lab. Increasingly we have seen the advent of what we call the Moocs – mass online open courses.”

The make-up of their classrooms in third-level institutions will change, too, given the demand for education from mature students – which is “putting a lot of pressure on the system,” Byrne says – and the shrinking of the gender gap. “For a while in the 2000s females were outperforming males right through the education system. The gender balance is now much closer than it was.”

Those pressures come with financial challenges, and it’s likely that the class of 2013 will be central to the debate about how education is funded. These students will be paying about €2,500 in fees, yet that covers only a quarter of the yearly cost of higher education per student.

There are “questions about how we best fund our education system”, Byrne says, “either through means of fees, a graduate tax, income-contingent loans or capping numbers. The debates in their societies and the protests on the streets will be about the issues of fees and funding.

“The higher-education structure they enter is also increasingly internationalised. The number of students taking Erasmus programmes is increasing, as are other exchange progammes. The number of Irish students looking to study abroad will continue to grow.”

Career options
Louise Campbell is the managing director of the financial recruitment company Robert Walters in Ireland. “It’ll be an interesting time in four to five years when these guys graduate,” she says. “Some students think they’re being very clever when they go for degree courses that they think there are loads of jobs in now. When I was in college, law was the coolest degree to have, and becoming a commercial-property lawyer was a big goal, but, as we know, that’s a dangerous approach to take.

“Telling kids to get into IT, which is what you hear a lot about now, is a dangerous thing to do, because even if they have no interest in IT, they’re going into an IT-related degree because there’s a market for it now. It might get them a job quickly, but that’s not necessarily the route to happiness.”

Campbell says financial-skill shortages will continue over the next couple of years. “Qualified accountants who will work in internal audit and regulatory areas – that side of increased regulation isn’t going to go away. I would foresee, within the next five years plus, that will be a busy area.”

Campbell says if she were a “savvy 18-year-old looking at booming industries in the near future”, the ones that stick out are “pharma, biotechnology, life science and IT. I think the important thing is trying to gain skills that are transferable.

“And a big area becoming more and more important is data analytics. It’s already become popular, obviously, but it’s going to explode, so that [will suit] graduates with third-level degrees in maths, statistics, quantitative analysis. Everyone has mountains of data, but the smart people getting into that area are about putting that data to use.”

Language skills
While the languages necessary for interacting with the growing economies of India, China and Brazil get a lot of press, Ireland still has a shortfall in European-language skills. Dorothy Kenny is a senior lecturer at Dublin City University (DCU), and the head of its school of applied languages and intercultural studies.

“People are fixated on emerging economies, and there certainly is a role there, because if we’re trading more with China and Brazil we will need people speaking those languages, and there are more people learning Mandarin now,” Kenny says. “But you still need to talk to your neighbours – the French and the Germans. If you look at what business wants, business struggles to find Irish people who can speak French, or the ‘Figs’: French, Italian, German and Spanish. So the very local languages in Europe are languages where businesses have a huge requirement.”

Currently, just 2-3 per cent of higher-level students in Ireland major in a language. “A lot of students we have who do Chinese combine it with business,” Kenny says, “and they really see it as the future. That’s interesting, but I say, ‘Well, if you just learned German as well you’d be doing yourself as many favours.’ ”

The changing landscape of exchange programmes will also continue to have an impact on the future language skills of today’s 18-year-olds, Kenny says. “During the 1980s we really started to get involved with Erasmus exchanges. In almost 30 years it has become more and more difficult to go away and become immersed, because they’re at universities interacting in English. The immersion experience needs much more management than it used to.”

Caring for their parents
Eamon Timmins of Age Action, a charity for older people, says, “There are big changes coming down the tracks, and they will affect the current crop of 18-year-olds.

“At the moment we have 12 per cent of our population over 65. By 2060 that will increase to 25 per cent, and by then those 18-year-olds won’t be far off being older people themselves.”

The way children care for their parents will also change. Falling family sizes mean potential care will be shared between fewer children. “We’ve seen huge changes in the past 20 years,” Timmins says. “Twenty, 30 years ago, people would support their parents in a different way, but society has changed, and people aren’t living beside their families in many cases any more, so we have seen a huge growth in private care, and the private sector will be a growth area in the coming years.”

Timmins identifies care assisted by technology as another growth area. “The fact is we’re going to live healthier and longer, so we may not have the same level of dependency the current generation of older people have.”

The class of 2013 will also work well into their 60s, if not beyond. On January 1st the transition pension will be abolished, meaning there will be no bridging pension between the age of 65 and the State pension, at 66. In 2121 the pension age will be moved from 66 to 67, and in 2028 to 68.

Timmins says the future of ageing and care will be in the hands of these school-leavers. “Eighteen-year-olds have huge opportunities to shape the agenda, from a work point of view, from a research point of view, challenges in caring, and the question of whether their parents and grandparents will need that care.”

Personal and societal changes
John Buckley of says young people are getting to their transition points in life – leaving school, entering third level, getting a first job, for example – but those transition points are lasting longer. “Now there’s a much longer gap for a young person in those transition zones, which means they’re spending longer in limbo, asking themselves questions about their lives.”

But he says today’s 18-year-olds seem hopeful, excited and optimistic despite the prospect of unemployment.

Over the next three years the opportunity for young people to engage with politics will increase, because of the number of upcoming polls: local elections, European elections, referendums and a general election.

“Democracy and how we’re engaged with shaping our country’s future is something interesting,” Buckley says. “There’s potential for a hell of a lot of referendums on social issues, such as marriage equality and reducing the voting age.

“We’re going to be asked to vote a lot, so will they be as involved in democracy? Will we see more young people turning out or more apathy? Are we going to give young people the franchise when they go away? Will they have a say in how the country they’re part of will be shaped and developed?”

Increased access to pornography is another issue for this generation. “The David Cameron proposal in Britain around filtering – it will be interesting to see how that will play out,” says Buckley. “I know Ruairí Quinn has started moves to discuss that with internet service providers, so how that develops and how we talk about sex and share information about sex will be an interesting factor.”

And there’s also the emotional impact of technology, Buckley says. “In the physical world, we display a lot of empathy. We don’t see that as much online. That is a challenge.”

Life expectancy and health
Year on year we’re living three months longer. That means a child born this time next year will live three months longer than someone born today. According to Prof Rose Anne Kenny, head of the ageing research programme at Trinity College Dublin and St James’s Hospital, today’s 18-year-olds will have an average life expectancy of between 86 and 90.

“Some of them will live well beyond 100, 110, 115, 120,” Kenny says, “If you think about that, it may be that when they’re 70 or 75 they’re looking after their mother and father as well as their children, as well as their grandchildren, and possibly great-grandchildren – that sort of multilayered sandwich. Now we mostly see the middle of the sandwich: the parent and the children. But in their lifespan that sandwich will become a McDonald’s: multilayered.”

Young people who received their Leaving Cert results this week are already at a health advantage over those who didn’t complete second-level education. Students who go on to third-level education will have another advantage.

“The people who continue to be educated throughout their lives will live longer, will have healthier lives, will be less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease, less likely to get cancer, and less likely to get heart disease or stroke.”

Kenny also outlines holistic steps that this generation can take to confront potential health issues. “The other elements that are also important are to have good friendships and good social relationships. Keeping the friends they’ve got and developing new friends lifelong also reduces the risk factors of getting Alzheimer’s, depression and cancer.

“The reason is that loneliness, or poor social relationships, or those who are less stimulated, are more likely to have inflation in their system. That’s a cause of dementia and cancer and heart disease and stroke.

“Things like good friendships, fun, good education and stimulation of the brain and body are really good patterns to get into now.”

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