the employment gap between young people with tertiary and basic education increased by 8 points in 20 years

  1. The impact of secondary education 
  2. Polarisation of educational levels 
  3. The impact of the labour reform on temporary employment among young people 
  4. Spaniards, the most sociable with family and friends 
  5. The Social Observatory of the “la Caixa” Foundation 

The massification of higher education qualifications has raised public doubts about the value and opportunities they actually create for young people, especially in the workplace. However, the study Education and its effects on the opportunities of young people shows that university education, as well as Higher Vocational Training, is a social lift, with a positive impact on access to the labour market for young people. This is one of the main conclusions of this report included in the dossier Young people, opportunities and futures, from the Social Observatory of the “la Caixa” Foundation. 

The study, led by Lígia Ferro, from the Universidade do Porto, and Pedro Abrantes, from the Universidade Aberta and ISCTE – Instituto Universitário de Lisboa, analyses the educational evolution of young Spaniards and the impact this has had on their job opportunities between 2001 and 2021, thanks to comparative data from Eurostat and the OECD. Among their conclusions, the authors point out that the gap in the employment rate of young Spaniards with a basic level of education (primary or ESO) and university graduates or those with higher vocational training increased by 8 points in 20 years, with the rate being higher among students with higher education.   

In 2021, the employment rate of 25-34 year olds with tertiary education was 78.2 % compared to 59.2 % of employment among young people with primary or ESO education, indicating a difference of 19 %. In 2001, employment among young people with tertiary education was 75.7%, and among young people with basic education 64.6%.

From a European perspective, between 2001 and 2021 the gap increased by more than 6 points in favour of young people with tertiary education. While the employment rate of 25-34 year olds with tertiary education was 85.1% in 2021, the employability of young Europeans with primary or secondary education was 56%, indicating a difference of 29.1%. In 2001, the employment rate of young people with tertiary education was 85.3% and that of young people with basic education was 62.6%, a difference of 22.7%. 

“The educational level of young people has become an even more decisive factor for their chances in the labour market. This has been a consistent trend over the last two decades and is still observed today. Moreover, it is a stronger trend among girls. In other words, gender inequality has widened for young women with low levels of education, but it almost disappears among those with university studies”, said the co-author of the study and researcher at the Universidade Aberta and ISCTE – Instituto Universitário de Lisboa, Pedro Abrantes. 

The impact of secondary education 

The comparison during the same period between young people with higher education and those with upper secondary education (Baccalaureate and intermediate vocational training) also shows an increase in the gap in the employment rate by more than 6 points in favour of university graduates.   

Thus, while the employment rate among young people with higher education was 78.2 % in 2021, the employment rate among young Spaniards with a Baccalaureate or intermediate vocational training was 68.9 %. Going back to 2001, the employment rate among young people with tertiary education was 75.7 %, and 72.9 % for young people with upper secondary education. The data show that the gap in the employment rate between the two levels of education has increased by 6.5 % in 20 years. And Abrantes points out: “Among young people with a baccalaureate education and those with vocational training, the latter have higher employment rates. In this case, the gap has also increased over the last decade”. 

“Anyway, considering the data for 2022, the trend we observe is that this scenario is maintained. However, compared to 2021, in Spain there is a small improvement in employment rates, which is stronger among university graduates than among those with basic education”, Abrantes pointed out. 

The authors presented the main conclusions of their study at an event held at CaixaForum Madrid together with the Deputy Director General of the “la Caixa” Foundation, Juan Ramón Fuertes. The presentation was also attended by the main researchers of the other two reports included in the “la Caixa” Foundation Social Observatory’s Young People, Opportunities and Futures dossier: Alejandro Godino, from the Centre for Sociological Studies on Everyday Life and Work (QUIT) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), main author of the report Have labour reforms reduced the temporary employment of young people? and Joan M. Verd, from the Centre d’Estudis Sociològics sobre la Vida Quotidiana i el Treball (QUIT) of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), co-author of the study Las relaciones personales de los jóvenes con su entorno. 

Polarisation of educational levels 

Examining in detail the evolution of the education of young Spaniards between 2011 and 2021, the authors have observed that the polarisation of the educational levels of young people in Spain is higher than the European average. 

Thirteen years ago, 35 % of young people in Spain had basic education, 25 % had upper secondary education and the remaining 40 % had higher education. In the same year, the European average of young people with basic education was 16 % compared to 48 % of young people with upper secondary education and 36 % of young people with university or FO Higher education. 

In 2021, the rate of young Spaniards with only basic education fell to 28 %, while 24 % of young people had upper secondary education and 49 % had university or tertiary vocational education. In the same year, the average of young Europeans with basic education was 12 %, 42 % had upper secondary education, and 46 % had university or higher vocational training.

“Significant progress has been made in Spain. However, a large percentage of young people leave the education system without obtaining even a post-compulsory secondary level qualification, and these young people today find themselves in situations of vulnerability and risk of exclusion that are more accentuated than in the past. Moreover, the age variable is joined by others such as social class, gender or territorial origin”, emphasised the report’s co-author and researcher at the University of Porto, Lígia Ferro. 

The impact of the labour reform on temporary employment among young people 

The dossier Young people, opportunities and futures of the Social Observatory of the “la Caixa” Foundation also includes the study Have labour reforms reduced temporary employment among young people?, led by Alejandro Godino and Óscar Molina, from the Centre for Sociological Studies on Everyday Life and Work (QUIT) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), and Fátima Suleman, from the University Institute of Lisbon (ISCTE-IUL), DINÂMIA’CET.  

This second report, in which the data for 2020 and 2021 have been omitted given the effect of the health crisis, concludes that there has been a reduction in youth temporary employment since the labour reform carried out by the Spanish government in December 2021. 

Specifically, the reduction in youth temporality was 10.4 % in 2022, and 21.2 % in the second quarter of 2023, compared to the same period in 2017, while unemployment fell by around 9 % in both periods and the activity rate remained stable. (Note: Given that the labour reform was not fully mandatory until April 2022, the authors have focused their analysis on the second quarter of each annuality). 

“Contractual temporariness has fallen markedly among young Spaniards since the 2021 labour reform. Far from encouraging a wave of job destruction, this legal limitation of temporary contracts has been accompanied by a cycle of job creation and consolidation. This contrasts with the unsuccessful results of previous reforms to limit temporary employment in Spain (similar to the one implemented in Portugal in 2023), which focused on incentive measures for permanent contracts”, said Alejandro Godino, co-author of the study and researcher at the Centre for Sociological Studies on Daily Life and Work (QUIT) of the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB). 

With respect to 2019, the reduction in temporary employment among young Spaniards was more than 8% in the short term after the approval of the reform and almost 19% more than a year after its implementation, percentages that are practically double those observed in the general population.  

Even so, the percentage of people aged 25-34 in Spain with a temporary contract in 2022 was 30.5%, compared to the European average of 18.4%, according to Eurostat data for 2023 included in the dossier.   

“Since the entry into force of the labour reform, there has been a drastic reduction in the gap in temporary employment among young people in Spain compared to the European average. If in 2019 more than half (55 %) of Spanish employees under 30 worked on a temporary basis compared to 36 % of young Europeans, now both groups are around the same percentage (34.4 % in Europe and 36.2 % in Spain). The reading of these data suggests that the reform has served to reduce the structural use of temporary contracts in activities and situations that do not require it, i.e. jobs that are not seasonal or that are in continuous demand in the company”, the researcher pointed out. 

Spaniards, the most sociable with family and friends 

Finally, the dossier of the Social Observatory of the “la Caixa” Foundation includes a third study, The personal relationships of young people with their environment, in which the researchers check to what extent the sociability of young Spaniards aged 18 to 34 is similar to that of the rest of the European Union.

The authors Joan M. Verd, Mireia Bolíbar and Joan Rodríguez-Soler, from the Centre d’Estudis Sociològics sobre la Vida Quotidiana i el Treball (QUIT) of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), and Rita Gouveia, from the Instituto de Ciências Sociais of the University of Lisbon, after analysing data from the tenth wave of the European Social Survey (2020-2022), have concluded that young Spaniards feel closest to their parents (56.6%), followed by Greeks (51.1%) and Portuguese (49.5%). The European average is 37.9%. 

The third study included in the dossier also analyses the level of social isolation of young people, comparing the situation in Spain and Portugal with the EU average. The data show that social isolation is more prevalent among young people of foreign origin, with greater economic vulnerability and in a situation of unemployment, although in general this isolation is lower in Spain. 

The Social Observatory of the “la Caixa” Foundation 

The Social Observatory of the “la Caixa” Foundation is a space for analysis, debate and reflection that studies the changes taking place in society and disseminates knowledge of the social sciences to encourage the enrichment of informed public debate. 

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