We live in a rapidly changing world where we are having frequent and ongoing debates over what future infrastructure our country will need in order to remain a competitive and secure society. Yet there is rarely similar discussion about the future wellbeing and health of the people living in the UK and what this might mean for future prosperity. This is despite that a society with poor health has lower productivity and less social capital.

Ill health isn’t generally something that appears from nowhere in later life; it is a consequence of our experiences throughout life. Young people today face challenges and opportunities which would have been unimaginable when I was growing up. Talking to young people from around the UK as part of our young people’s future health inquiry, we’ve found many are entering adulthood without the core building blocks for a healthy future, namely a place to call home, potential for secure and rewarding work, and supportive relationships with their friends, family and community.

This matters, first and foremost, because of what it means for the young people involved. But it also matters because experiences between the ages of 12 and 24 will play a crucial role in determining young people’s health and wellbeing in the long term. There are already signs that the gains made in improving the health of previous generations may well be eroded by the precariousness and instability of the lives many young people are facing.

The health of the next generation is our most valuable asset. Surely the key to guaranteeing a healthy and thriving society must be creating places that support young people to grow up in and enter adulthood successfully?

Yet we are increasingly seeing young people needing to move away from towns and rural areas into large cities to find employment. Some will, as a consequence, thrive. But others will find themselves adrift from the emotional support they need, experiencing loneliness and anxiety. And unfortunately, a thriving job market is often associated with unaffordable housing costs — Londoners spend on average half their earnings on rent — trapping young people in poor quality, insecure accommodation.

Those that don’t have the financial and social capital to move for work are often finding themselves qualified but with no local prospects of good quality work. Left facing a future of low pay and insecurity and, of equal concern, lacking fulfilment. We know unemployed young people are more than twice as likely to suffer from mental ill health compared with those in work.

There are no winners in this scenario. Fewer young people are finding it possible to thrive. And our regional towns and cities face an uncertain future as they lose the young people that are their lifeblood.

The litmus test for any local leadership must be what they hand on to future generations. This includes how young people are enabled to transition successfully into adulthood. Towns and cities which fail to focus on this will pay a high price in the future.

Jo Bibby (@JoBibbyTHF) is Director of Healthy Lives Strategy at the Health Foundation

This piece originally appeared in The Times

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Listening to our future

June 2018

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