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With youth unemployment at its highest since the 1980s, new data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that the graduate unemployment level is equal to that facing those who leave school after their GCSEs.

In 2011, 25% of 21-year-olds who had completed university degrees were unable to find a job, compared with 26% of 16-year-olds with no qualifications other than GCSEs. The unemployment rate for 18-year-olds with A-levels was lower, at 20%.

Older graduates had less trouble finding work; just 5% of 24-year-olds with degrees were unemployed in 2011. 7% of 24-year-olds with only A-levels were unemployed, rising to 13% for those who left school after their GCSEs.

Charlie Ball is deputy director of research at the Higher Education Careers Services Unit. He said that, although the ONS figures are accurate, the picture they paint is misleading because the number of people leaving education after their A-levels was lower than the number of people graduated from university last year.

Ball explained that “although the number of young people out of work is historically high, the graduate unemployment rate in this recession has not reached the levels it did in the 1980s or 1990s.”

Indeed outlook for graduates may be better than the headline figures suggest; investment firm Skandia has undertaken research which shows that a graduate entering the job market today will earn an average of £1.6 million over 45 years of work, compared with £1 million for an 18-year-old working for 48 years. An individual with GCSEs only can expect to earn £783,964 over a 49.5-year career.

If you’re still at university, make sure you’re in the best possible financial situation when you graduate – get all the advice you need in our student finance guide.

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