What is youth studies for? One answer to this question points to the valuable, possibly unique, position youth research has as a window on processes of social change and of social continuity. Based on the author's long-term engagement in youth research, from the early 1980s to now, this article reflects on how youth transitions to the labour market - and the way that they are thought about in youth studies and youth policy - have changed and stayed the same over the past 30 years. While the main empirical focus is on the UK, the article notes the wider relevance of many of the trends that are discussed. As well as looking backward, the article considers possibilities and challenges for the future; for youth, for youth research and for youth policy. In terms of young adults' lives, the spreading shadow of unemployment, economic marginality and precariousness is described. In terms of research, it argues that, in order to achieve greater theoretical significance and impact for youth studies - and to better understand processes of social change and continuity - further strides need to be taken to overcome the enduring divide between youth cultural and youth transitions studies. Finally, on the basis of these reflections from youth studies, the article raises important questions for current and coming social and economic policy. Here the local - and global - significance of underemployment and the 'myth of the skills economy' are discussed.