The class of 2006: As pupils await their A-level results, they also face an uncertain future

They want a good job, enough money and they're in no hurry to marry. So what else is new? Sophie Goodchild & Jonathan Owen report on the prospects for this year's school leavers
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They are the future captains of industry, political leaders and playwrights. And, according to experts, the latest batch of school leavers, who receive their A-level results this week, face a very different future from previous generations.

They will switch careers, possibly up to four times during their working lives. And some, though qualified for their professions, will choose plumbing or carpentry over accountancy or the Bar.

A major report by the Future Foundation, published today, which predicts work and life trends reveals how growing up in a time of economic stability has given the class of 2006 a confidence their parents did not have. For them, having a good and fulfilling job far outweighs a compulsion to earn money and be financially secure.

Their attitude to work is also far more flexible, with nearly two-thirds of young people in this age group planning to run their own business in the future, compared with only around half of those who left school in the late 1990s.

Comprehensive research into attitudes and outcomes for bright young Britons also shows that they will be in no rush to settle down. More than 40 per cent have no plans to marry or cohabit with a partner.

The findings from the Future Foundation also show that young people have a clear desire to strike out on their own, although there may be periods of sharing houses at university and returning to their parents during holidays and at the end of their degree studies while their debts are paid off.

Official figures show that about 40 per cent of the current batch of A-level qualified school leavers will go to university and those who graduate will earn £100,000 more over their lifetime than someone who had finished their education at A-level.

But other experts predict that the current generation of school leavers face far more uncertainty in their lives, with a degree no longer being a guarantee of career success.

Class barriers remain a huge hindrance for today's teenagers and have a direct impact on their futures. A continuing north-south divide is blamed for the fact that the majority of teenagers who go on to university are from the Home Counties and the South-east.

An investigation published today reveals that state school students are more likely get better AS grades than private school students but feel discouraged from applying to elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.

The investigation by Oxbridge Applications, which gives advice to those applying to Britain's most elite academic institutions, reveals that 15 per cent of state school students receive better grades than predicted compared with one in 10 at private schools.

However, more than a quarter of state school students surveyed who had the grades to apply to Oxford University chose not to because they feared they would not fit in or lacked confidence about the interview process.

Professor Richard Scase, a leading economist, says that despite the fact that women and people from ethnic minority backgrounds have a lot more opportunities, the "old boys' network" still counts against those who have obtained a degree but have not been to an "elite" university.

"It all comes back to backgrounds - degrees are worth a lot from some universities but not from others," said Professor Scase, emeritus professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Kent.

"There will also be a reversal in the reward system with hairdressers and bricklayers benefiting most. And people will want to work with smaller companies because they don't think larger organisations are accountable any more."

Experts predict that the class of 2006 will no longer be able to rely on a degree and professional qualifications, such as accountancy exams or medical training, as a passport to a job for life.

This is, in part, a result of the globalisation of the workplace where administrative jobs are increasingly being outsourced to Asia and company takeovers and mergers are commonplace.

Experts on employment trends and the job market predict that those who succeed in the workplace will be those who constantly "rebrand" themselves, update their skills and show that they are "players" with proven leadership and communication abilities.

Their parents may have chosen careers and stuck with them. But the current generation of 18-year-olds is expected to make a positive choice to change the direction of their careers during their working lives. They might start off in so-called traditional occupations like banking, and then deliberately make a radical shift in their late 20s towards jobs that offer them more creativity and freedom such as setting up their own organic food businesses.

Dr Peter Marsh, a chartered psychologist, said that the worldview of the children of the "noughties" generation has already been influenced by the threat of terrorism and they have a much more sober approach to planning their futures.

"These are people growing up in the decade where their formative years have been about 9/11, tsunamis and London bombings," said Dr Marsh, director of the Social Issues Research Centre.

"They are in many ways a more cautious generation because nothing is safe or guaranteed in life. Going to university is not enough, they have to be players."

The Association of Graduate Recruiters forecasts a huge growth in jobs supplying personal services such as hairdressing, massage, life-coaching and physiotherapy.

As a result, the pay gap between graduate and non-graduate jobs, such as those in plumbing and carpentry, will continue to narrow. In contrast, work in manufacturing industries will decline.

Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the AGR, points out that there has been a huge growth in opportunities for graduates but this has been accompanied by a significant rise in the number of students going to university.

As a result, would-be employers will place much more emphasis on extra-curricular achievements that demonstrate potential employees have abilities that extend beyond being able to sit in a lecture hall and take notes.

"A degree still has an awful lot of clout but only if you have other skills to go with it," he said.

"Even if you come out with a first, employers expect people to show their employability, to show they have given seminars and have leadership skills. The graduate who just goes to lectures and comes out with a 2:1 and nothing else behind that will find it hard to compete."

Life after A-levels

Ryan Lindsay

AGE 18

A professional racing driver currently in Formula Vee

School: Heart of England School, Solihull, West Midlands

A-levels: Chemistry, physics and maths with mechanics

Needs: Ryan's results will be a bonus as he already has a place to do a technical certificate in motor sports at North Warwickshire and Hinckley College.

"I think the exams went OK but I guess I will find out when I get the results. I'm expecting to get Cs. My studies definitely came second to my racing this year. I was more racing than studying really but think I've done just about enough. It depends what subjects you study, but there seems to be a lot more exams to study for now and more pressure and expectations than in the past. We're now expected to go to college automatically but I think that's a good thing and will help you later on in life when it comes to getting a job.

"I have raced at Silverstone and Brands Hatch this year and want to break into the top 10 of Formula Vee racing. I've always wanted to race for as long as I remember and started at 11. If I'm really lucky and everything goes as well as it has done then I could be in Formula One in a few years' time."

Sophie Clifton

AGE 18

Works as a band promoter to help to finance her studies

School: Sir William Borlase's Grammar School, Marlow, Buckinghamshire

A-levels: Geography, drama and psychology

Needs: An A and two B grades to study psychology at the University of Bristol or University College London

"I think I've probably got a B in geography and As in the others. I am applying for places for next year and am just waiting for my results now. I'd like to go into journalism with psychology behind me and would like to specialise in crime stories. I have decided to take a year out, work a bit and raise some funds so that I can go travelling. I've set up my own music promotions company and put on gigs about two or three times a month. This is something that will help keep the financial side of things from being a problem.

"Lots of people say things have got a lot easier. You just have to grin and smile at them but the reality of it is that I had to spend hours up to 10 hours a day studying. You feel you have to do the studying to get the grades in order not to disappoint people."

Steven Chambers

AGE 18

His research into black holes was taken up by Nasa and Intel

School: Wyke Sixth Form College, Hull, Humberside

A-levels: Maths, further maths, physics, English language, general studies

Needs: Two A grades and a B to study for a master's in mathematics at Imperial College London

"Like anybody I got stressed out in the exam period, but in comparison to some I wasn't too stressed or worried. I had quite a funny chat with my dad about A-levels, with more and more people passing them. I just look at it logically and it seems quite crazy to suggest that far more people today are somehow clever enough to go to university than in the past. I think in certain subject areas, like business studies and media studies, standards are dropping and things are getting easier.

"I love my subject and would like to go on and do a PhD, and then after that I'd like to do something in the City. I think competition has increased massively in our generation. There is an incredibly high demand on students now to succeed in life and sometimes it is pushed too much."

Elly Berry

AGE 18

Is performing in a play at Edinburgh Festival during her year out

School: Cheltenham Ladies' College, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

A-levels: Biology, chemistry and geography

Needs: Two A grades and a B to study biology at the University of Durham

"I am going off to the Edinburgh Festival next week, where I'll be appearing in a play, Whale Music, that my friends and I are putting on there. I've been so busy with this that I haven't had much time to worry about my exam results.

"I am having a gap year as I just don't feel that I'm ready to go straight off to college. I need a year to go out, see a bit of the world and grow up a bit. I have no career in mind; it is just that biology is a subject that I love. I have this thirst for knowledge and just want to learn as much as I can about it.

"My generation is very lucky. Society has changed and gap years are becoming accepted now, so that people are freer to do what they want rather than just what is expected of them."

Natalie Dixon

AGE 18

Left home at 16 and lives in sheltered accommodation

School: Bilborough College, Nottingham

A-levels: Biology, chemistry and psychology

Needs: Nothing - already has a place to study nursing at Nottingham Trent University

"I wanted to do A-levels to develop my knowledge and to expand it. I did them for myself. I was from a deprived background and had personal problems. I suffered from depression and left home at 16. Since then I've been living in sheltered accommodation and have been supported by the Karibu Foyer Project. I think the exams went well. I tried my hardest and think I did OK. I want to be challenged academically and then be in a position to help people. I want to fulfil my potential and see how far I can go.

"At the college I went to there weren't many black students and as a black woman you do find that people stereotype you. When I tell people what I'm doing they tend to be shocked. In a way that's a bad thing and gets to me but in another way it makes me more determined to carry on."

Mohammed Aamir Ismailjee

AGE 18

40 per cent of school's pupils are Muslim

School: Beal High School, Ilford, Essex

A-levels: Maths, computing and biology

Needs: Two A grades and a B to study optometry at City University, London

"The exams didn't go as well as I would have hoped because they were much more difficult than I had expected. If I don't get the grades that I need I will retake them next year.

"My mother was brought up here but her parents are from Pakistan. It was harder for her because they didn't want her to get a further education. She's a teacher now. My father moved here in his early teens and went straight into work. It was easier for me because I've been able to continue my education.Muslim students are very keen on A-levels because in our religion education is the most important thing and the drive to do well is instilled from an early age."

Interviews by Jonathan Owen. Additional reporting by Catherine Baum

By the numbers

250,000 anxious A-level students will this week get the results that will determine what they do next

26m A-level and GCSE papers were taken this summer by one million students

28,281 students chose to do an A-level in media studies last year, more than opted to study physics

469,731 students have applied to take up higher education courses starting in the autumn

£100,000 more will be earned by a graduate over their lifetime than by someone who did not take their education beyond A-level

22.8% of all A-level passes in 2005 were at A grade