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The Research Brief: young people are too ill to work

Your weekly dose of policy thinking.

By Spotlight

Welcome to the Research Brief, where Spotlight, the New Statesman’s policy section, brings you the pick of recent publications from the government, think tank, charity and NGO world. See more editions of the Research Brief here.

What are we talking about this week? “We’ve only just begun: Action to improve young people’s mental health, education and employment”. It’s a startling report that reveals the scale of the mental health crisis facing young people (those aged 18-24), and how this impacts their ability to work. It’s been compiled by the Resolution Foundation and funded by the Health Foundation.

The Reso-who? The Resolution Foundation is an independent think tank focused on improving living standards for those on low- to middle-incomes. The Health Foundation is a charity that aims to improve the health of people living in the UK.

What’s the gist of this report? Typically, as people get older they get sicker, and are therefore less likely to contribute to the economy. This is one of the major concerns of the UK’s ageing population and dwindling birth rates: it will cause the working-age population to shrink. However, this report shows a reversal – people in their early twenties are now more likely to be out of work due to ill health than those in their early forties. The number of young people out of work due to ill health has more than doubled over the past decade, from 93,000 to 190,000.

How has that happened? Are young people just lazy? Let’s immediately leave behind the offensive tropes surrounding Gen Z and their unwillingness to work. This unemployment can be attributed to the sharp rise in mental health conditions, worsened by long NHS waiting lists. In 2021-22, more than a third (34 per cent) of young people aged 18-24 reported symptoms that indicated a “common mental disorder” (CMD) such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder, up from 24 per cent in 2000. Young people today have the worst mental health of any age group, while two decades ago, they actually had the lowest incidence of CMDs.

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Why are young people so mentally unwell? There’s no single cause – it’s a complex web of influencing factors. The report’s experts note the isolation of the pandemic as having a tangible, longer-term impact, alongside social media and the online world, increased pressure to perform at school and in work, and the rising cost of living paired with 14 years of austerity. The existential threats of climate change, a Middle East war, political polarisation and the extortionately expensive housing market probably haven’t helped, either. Authors also note the decline in stigma attached to mental health conditions: younger people today are far less reluctant to identify, talk about, report and act on their mental health problems than previous generations.

What about children and teenagers? Yes, the mental health of under-18s is also very concerning. In 2017, 17 per cent of 11- to 16-year-olds in England had a probable mental disorder; in 2023, that figure had shot up to 23 per cent. More than 400,000 children are currently waiting for NHS mental health care under Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).

What impact is all of this having on the economy? Poor mental health in childhood creates a domino effect, hampering educational and employment prospects. Children aged 11-14 with mental health issues are three times more likely not to pass five GCSEs, while 18- to 24-year-olds with mental health problems are more likely to be unemployed than their healthier peers. If left unresolved, this will exacerbate the ageing population further, leaving too many people in receipt of benefits and NHS care, and too few contributing to society through their taxes. It also reduces the pool of available workers, increasing staff shortages in crucial sectors.

That doesn’t sound good. No, and economic inactivity is already a problem. According to the Office for National Statistics, there are estimated to be 2.8 million people of working age (16-64) off work due to long-term sickness. This figure has increased by nearly 700,000 people since 2019, showing an “upward trajectory” and “record high since 1993”, according to Christopher Rocks, lead economist for the Health Foundation’s Commission for Healthier Working Lives. Since 2020, economic inactivity has added £16bn to annual borrowing through “higher welfare spending and foregone tax receipts”, he says.

What else? There are employment inequalities between young people with varying levels of education. Only 17 per cent of 18- to 24-year-old university graduates with mental health issues are out of work, compared with a third of those who didn’t go to university. Four in five (79 per cent) 18- to 24-year-olds who are out of work due to ill health have qualifications at GCSE level or below.

So what do we do about it? The report lays out a four-pronged approach, all of which are centred on support in educational settings (particularly for young people not destined for university) and workplaces. These include improving the provision of Mental Health Support Teams in schools and colleges; better support for children who fail their GCSEs to help them gain vital qualifications; careers advice for all young people through the expansion of the Department for Work and Pensions’ “youth hubs”; and better regulation for employers around mental health, which includes mandatory mental health training for managers. Failing to invest in a comprehensive programme will “risk creating a ‘lost generation’ due to ill health” with severe consequences for the economy, says Jo Bibby, director of health at the Health Foundation.

In a sentence? The mental health crisis facing young people is pushing them out of work – we urgently need more educational and employment support to save the future economy.

Read the full report from the Resolution Foundation and the Health Foundation here.

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