Guiding lights: Unveiling the true influencers of young people

Tuesday 21 November 2023, Student choice

by Megan Edwards, Principal Insight Consultant, UCAS

Guiding lights: Unveiling the true influencers of young people

‘Influencer’ has become a charged term in recent years, with connotations of social media’s negative impact upon young people's mental health. Yet decision-making around university applications, careers options and planning for the future remains highly influenced by several factors, persons and resources.
Megan Edwards, Principal Insight Consultant, UCAS

Who, and what, are the true sources of influence upon the crucial deliberations that occur between Year 9 and the moment you leave school?

UCAS recently explored these in depth, hosting a week-long series of conversations with young people aged 13-17. We sought answers to three questions:

  • What are their plans for their future?
  • What/who is influencing those plans?
  • …and who are the role models they look up to?

Our aim was to understand better the opinions, concerns and hopes of those who will form the next generation of school leavers as they explore their post-18 options.

The road of life

As part of the research, we asked learners to imagine their life as a road, stretching out before them, full of exciting opportunities around every bend, but also foggy, as yet undefined… We asked them:

  • Where are you driving to? Which destinations would you like to visit?
  • Who is riding with you? Which route will you take?
  • What are the hurdles or obstacles you will face getting there?

As they pondered their answers to this, a pattern began to emerge: their future aspirations for where the road would lead them broadly split into two key goals – career driven, and experience driven.

I am going to get an apprenticeship, then after that possibly get a job somewhere, then after that maybe try start my own company” (14 year old)

The career-driven group wasn’t laser-focused on money or status – they spoke of forging a career in something they love, although there was some ambiguity over what the 'career I love' actually looks like, and the group as a whole was open to new opportunities that may come their way. That said, many were already set on their career paths, from working for specific companies to pursuing a career in travel, or a set vocational goal such as nursing. 

With UCAS working to bring greater parity between apprenticeships and traditional HE routes in recent months, it is significant that apprenticeships are seen as a positive route to careers by even the youngest students we spoke to. 

Learners recognised that achieving the grades they need, and exams in general, as the most significant hurdle they face between them and their goals. They are keen to clear these and shape their path forward; they will welcome any support they get to build the skills and knowledge which will unlock their career goals, so delivering and advising on these skills is the key to attracting prospective applicants to choose you.

I’m not sure what I want to do for a job, but I like helping younger children. Maybe I might be a teacher (14 year old)

The second group of life road maps were more experienced-focused. 

As with their career-driven peers there were mentions of travel, enjoying new experiences, buying houses, and starting a family. They too acknowledge that 'passing exams & getting the grades I need' was typically the first step on the road to achieve their aspirations.  

Unlike the career group, their focus was less on a specific vocation, career or employer, and more on exploring their options through their own experiences such as university, travel, environment and community work. They were determined to find a job based on their interests and needs. This group was more open-minded to the routes that would lead them to achieve their life aspirations, open to experiencing different options rather than having a set route already planned out. As universities and employers, it’s important that this group hears not just about what you have to offer, but also how it fits their interests, values, and needs. This is crucial in messaging, as ultimately, they seek to try these experiences for themselves on their journey of discovery.

Regardless of how each group approached their future career, there were key elements common across our discussions:

  • Being content & fulfilled. 
  • Being financially secure.
  • Finding a career they love in a field that fits their passions.

The students we spoke to were not prepared to compromise on these core aims for their lives.

Parents and early choice

Important future life choices are already being considered by the youngest of the group we interviewed, and as we know from our Where Next report on what influences the choices school leavers make, some of the learners interviewed are likely to have begun thinking about their career choices even earlier than Year 9. Unsurprisingly, parents and guardians play a significant role in these early explorations, with their jobs and beliefs being the chief inspiration for 13 and 14 year olds’ future aspirations.

It’s therefore essential that universities and employers engage with parents as much as the students themselves. Consider how communications will be received not just by the student, but also anticipate them asking a parent or guardian for opinion and advice. For example, direct mail will in some cases be read by parents alongside the student. This is especially true for providers with niche subject offerings, as they face the task of raising awareness of the HE and job opportunities which may lie outside of the parent or guardian's direct circle of experience. 

And it wasn’t just parents who had influence over young people’s decision-making. When we asked who or what has inspired them to consider that sort of career, grandparents, siblings, uncles, and aunts also came up time and again. Young people have seen first-hand the work that their extended family has put in and admire them for the selflessness and support they show to others, as well as the unconditional support they’ve received from family members themselves. And they are more than just family members, they are role models young people wish to become themselves as they grow older.

A thoughtful generation

Beyond family we saw a real mix of wider influences on young people’s decision-making, with celebrities and public figures holding sway, particularly those who were demonstrably using their platforms to empower others or were relatable and 'like them'. When asked to map out their role models, there was a real balance between family and friends and celebrities, showing that young people are ultimately inspired by real examples and success stories, whether that be people they have a real-life connection with or a public figure who they have learned about, or observed their work through traditional and social media. For example, one young person named Lewis Hamilton as their role model for 'being the first black driver as I love watching and following him, it’s good to see someone of ethnicity in such a great sport', using his achievements to inspire themselves.  

However, regardless of whether someone is a family member or a celebrity, those individuals who had the impact on these young people enough to see them as role models demonstrate remarkably similar traits.

Hard work, positive outlook and resilience were factors that all their role models shared, as well as the ability to 'show you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it'.

These traits were borne out when we asked learners to choose from a list of motivational factors they thought were most important to them, to learn more about their life and career goals. A secure job that minimises stress and brings them satisfaction, together with the opportunity to widen their horizons through travel were among their top priorities.

Unsurprisingly for a cohort going through a cost-of-living crisis, the ability to earn a decent wage so they didn’t have to worry about money and rising costs was also among the motivating factors. But their aspiration for a higher income wasn’t just materially focused – like their role models, their ambition was to use their own success to help and support others. One 16 year old participant articulated these goals perfectly when they said:

… so I have enough money to help out my parents and be able to do the things that I love.

As universities and employers, it’s going to be essential to communicate the altruistic values of your brand over the next few years if you are to successfully recruit this thoughtful generation.

If you would like to understand how the findings can be applied to your university, contact your Customer Success Director to find out more and book an informal chat with our Consultancy Team:

Find out more about how we work with employers using UCAS’ unique data and insight to help you reach potential candidates.