As the children of 2000 reach adulthood, find out how life has changed for 18-year-olds since the start of the millennium.

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Number of 18-year-olds in UK falling, but set to rise

In the middle of 2017, there were 766,000 people in the UK aged 18. At the start of the millennium the number of 18-year-olds in the UK was rising – but since 2009 it’s been going down.

Estimated and projected number of 18-year-olds in the UK population, 2000 to 2034

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To find out why, we have to look back to the 1980s and 1990s.

We can rule out a couple of possibilities: very few people under 18 leave the country to live abroad, and thankfully only a small number die before their 18th birthday. The most likely explanation is that fewer people were born in the first place.

Back in 1982, when the 18-year-olds of 2000 were born, women in the UK were giving birth to an average of 1.78 children in their lifetimes. By 1990, this had gone up to an average of 1.83 children. By 2008 and 2009, when all these babies had grown up, we could see a high number of 18-year-olds.

Average number of children women give birth to in their lives, UK, 1982 to 2016

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In the 1990s, the fertility rates began to fall again, reaching a record low of 1.63 children per woman in 2001 and 2002. That’s why there are relatively few 18-year-olds now, and will be for the next year or two.

During the 1990s, women may have been delaying having children. Fertility rates for women in their 20s went down, but rose in the 2000s for women in their 30s.

Throughout the 2000s, women in their late 20s were also having more children on average, and there were also more foreign-born women of childbearing age living in the UK, who tend to have higher fertility rates than women born here.

This explains why the number of 18-year-olds in the UK population is projected to rise again throughout the 2020s.

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18-year-olds expected to live two years longer than 18-year-olds in 2000

18-year-olds in 2000 could expect to live until their late 80s. That’s increased by more than two years, and today, women aged 18 can expect to live into their 90s.

Expected age at death for 18-year-olds, UK, 2000 to 2018

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As the millennium began, 18-year-old men in the UK in 2000 could expect to live until 85.1 years and women could expect to reach 88.3 years.

Today, women aged 18 can expect to celebrate their 90th birthday, with their life expectancy at 90.5 years, while 18-year-old men of today are expected to live until 87.7 years.

Over the last 18 years the gap in life expectancy between the sexes has shrunk slightly, with 18-year-old women expected to outlive men by 2.8 years, compared with 3.2 years in 2000.

However, how long people live varies a lot around the country – people in areas including Glasgow, Blackpool and Dundee can expect to live around a decade less than those in areas such as Kensington and Chelsea, East Dorset and Buckinghamshire.

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Getting married at 18 no longer a thing

18-year-olds aren’t getting married in nearly the same numbers they used to.

Only around one in a thousand 18-year-olds got married in 2015 – five times fewer than at the start of the millennium. Only 683 people aged 18 tied the knot in the UK in 2015, compared with 3,693 people in 2000.

Number of people aged 18 getting married each year per 1,000 people aged 18, UK, 2000 to 2015

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It’s possible to get married in the UK from the age of 16 – but in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, you must be at least 18 years old to marry without your parents’ permission.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that not many people get married as soon as they legally can. Those who do tend to be women: they’re three times as likely as men to get married at 18, reflecting the fact that in opposite-sex couples, women tend to be younger than their husbands.

Between 2004 and 2005, the marriage rates for 18-year-olds fell dramatically, by 30% for men and 40% for women. This may have been because of rules introduced in early 2005 aimed at preventing “sham marriages”. Marriage rates for all ages fell around then, but the large decrease for 18-year-olds suggests that young people, especially women, were particularly affected.

The overall reduction in the rate of 18-year-olds getting married reflects the fact that people are marrying later: the average age of people getting married for the first time has been rising steadily since the early 1970s.

One of the biggest changes to marriage since the start of the millennium came in March 2014, when the law changed so that people of the same sex could marry. So far, same-sex couples have been marrying at an older age than opposite-sex couples.

Average age at first marriage, England and Wales, 1970 to 2015

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Far fewer 18-year-old mums and dads

Since 2000 there’s been a big drop in the number of babies born to 18-year-old parents. The birth rate for women aged 18 fell by 58% between 2000 and 2016, while for men aged 18, the birth rate dropped by 41%.

Number of live births to 18-year-old parents per 1,000 people aged 18, UK, 2000 to 2016

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The fall in the birth rate for 18-year-olds partly reflects the fact that for more than 40 years, people have been having children later in life. By 2016, the average age of a first-time mother in England and Wales had risen to almost 29.

In addition, governments around the UK have tried to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies. A government strategy in 1999 aimed to halve the under-18 pregnancy rate in England by 2010 through, for example, introducing better sex education and improving access to contraception and sexual health services.

Other social changes are thought to have had an effect, including the big rise in the number of young women going to university, a perceived stigma around being a teenage mother, and the easier access via phones and tablets to information about sex, relationships and contraception.

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Working 18-year-olds outnumbered by those who don't work

The 2008 recession had a big impact on the working lives of young people. The number of 18-year-olds in work had been going down for several years, but there was a steeper decline in employment in the wake of the economic downturn.

Since then, the number of 18-year-olds in work has usually been outnumbered by those who are neither looking for, nor available for, work – people known as “economically inactive”. These include many of the 18-year-olds in higher education, whose numbers continue to rise.

Employment, unemployment and inactivity of 18-year-olds, UK, 2000 to 2017 (October to December each year, not seasonally adjusted)

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Currently around 43% of 18-year-olds are working; this compares with 60% at the start of the millennium. But the number of 18-year-olds who are unemployed – people who don’t have a job, but have been looking for one and are available to start work – isn’t much higher than it was in 2000.

Instead, there’s been a big increase in the number of 18-year-olds who are “economically inactive”. This can include students – if they aren’t working or looking for work alongside their studies – and there are more of them than ever.

There has been a long-term trend in the UK of people remaining in education beyond 16 and beyond 18. In 2017, there were a record number of 18-year-olds from the UK (241,500) accepted at British universities – representing one in three of the 18-year-old population.

Proportion of the 18-year-old population accepted onto an undergraduate higher education course, UK, admissions cycles 2006 to 2017

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“Generation Sensible”? Drinking and smoking in decline

They’ve been labelled “Generation Sensible” – young people who are shunning alcohol, tobacco and even sex.

Drinking and smoking do seem to be in decline: only around half of 18- to 24-year-olds had drunk alcohol in the previous week, while less than a quarter of 18- to 24-year olds smoke.

People aged 18 to 24 years who drank, or “binged” in the week before interview, Great Britain, 2005 to 2017

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The 18-year-olds of the new millennium may have been “peak drinkers”. Research in 1998 and 1999 by the Home Office found that four out of five people aged 18 to 24 had drank alcohol in the last week.

When the Office for National Statistics started measuring drinking habits in 2005, around two-thirds (66%) of young people had had a drink in the previous week. By 2017, this had fallen to 53%, with women more likely (57%) to have drunk alcohol than men (50%).

Binge drinking is defined as men drinking 8 units of alcohol (around 4 pints of beer or 600ml of wine) or women drinking 6 units (3 pints of beer or 450ml of wine) on their heaviest drinking day. Back in 2005, around one in three young people (32%) had binged in the previous week; this figure has come down to less than one in four in 2017.

The decline in smoking among young people since 2000 has been more dramatic, perhaps helped along by governments around the UK banning smoking in workplaces and enclosed public spaces, raising the legal age to purchase tobacco from 16 to 18, outlawing the display of tobacco products in shops, and introducing compulsory plain packaging.

People aged 18 to 24 years who are cigarette smokers, Great Britain, 2000 to 2017

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At the same time, we’ve seen the arrival of e-cigarettes, which are often used as an alternative to tobacco, or as an aid to help stop smoking.

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Is time up for TV?

18-year-olds spend almost half an hour less per day socialising than 18-year-olds at the start of the millennium, while time spent watching and listening to films, TV and radio back in 2000 to 2001 seems to have been replaced in 2014 to 2015 by time using computers and gaming.

Change in time spent by 18-year-olds on selected activities between 2000 to 2001 and 2014 to 2015 (average minutes per day)

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The internet was a very different place at the start of the century – with no Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube or Instagram – and no smartphones or tablets to access it. The biggest changes to how 18-year-olds spend their time may be driven in part by the rise of digital technology.

Time 18-year-olds spent socialising, which includes meeting friends and family, visiting pubs or cafes, or talking on the phone, declined by 27 minutes per day between 2000 to 2001 and 2014 to 2015.

Time spent computing, which includes using social media, went up by 17 minutes per day, while 18-year-olds spent an additional 31 minutes playing games including computer games. There was also a rise in the amount of time spent on sport and exercise, up by 8 minutes per day. Perhaps another sign of “Generation Sensible”?

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