A few doors down from me live two teenage boys. I see them playing video games when I walk past their sitting-room window. I smile at their parents when I see them, but I don’t know the boys themselves.
But I do wonder what life is like for them – what is their school like? Who are their friends? What do they want to be when they grow up? What will their future be like? Due to my work on the Health Foundation’s Young people’s future health inquiry, I also wonder, will they be healthy?
Reading Health Equity in England: The Marmot Review 10 Years On, I worry about them.
Today’s 13-year-olds were just three when the first Marmot report was published in 2010. Ten years ago, when they were at pre-school, funding for children’s services started to be cut. The most deprived areas of the country have lost more funding for children and youth services than the less deprived areas, even as the need for the services has increased. Rates of child poverty have increased too. This means that many of today’s teenagers have entered their second decade without being properly supported in their early childhoods, a period crucial for their social and emotional learning.
So, what are our teenagers living through today, in 2020? The boys on my road spend most of their time at secondary school – is their experience there going to set them up for a healthy future? The new Marmot review emphasises a large gap in school achievement between the poorest and the richest teenagers. And the Education Policy Institute estimate that pupils eligible for the pupil premium (formerly free school meals) fall behind their more affluent peers by around two months each year over the course of secondary school.
Schools themselves are also struggling. The new Marmot review highlights that since 2010, per-pupil funding in schools has decreased by 8%. Post-16 education has been particularly hard hit, with spending per student in school sixth forms falling by 23% since 2009. Our recent work with the Education Policy Institute also traces the impact this may have on young people in the future, in their careers and their opportunities.
Childhood is a time of rapid brain development, and educational settings can have profound effects on young people’s mental health and wellbeing. One young person we spoke to for our Place to Grow report, and for our work with the Centre for Mental Health, said:
‘At school you’re told exams are everything, but they’re not everything. We still have feelings but feelings don’t seem to matter anymore. The stress is too much.’
Health Equity in England: The Marmot Review 10 Years On also echoes the findings of our Young people’s future health inquiry on the potential impact of cuts to youth services, suggesting that from 2010–16, spending on youth services fell by 66% in real terms. The inquiry heard first-hand about the effects of closing youth clubs, another key pillar of support for teenagers in the past that is not available to teenagers today. One young person commented:
‘There was one youth club in my area and I loved going when I was younger but it has closed down now and there is nothing in the area. It’s sad because that’s where I feel like I grew up.’
Our work with the Centre for Youth Impact highlighted the importance of ‘somewhere to go, something to do and someone to talk to’ for young people’s future health, things which many teenagers right now are missing out on. There is hope of some support re-emerging. In the Queen’s Speech, £500m was pledged for youth services. But there has been so little for so long, it’s hard to know what a youth service fit for the 2020s could even look like.
So, what about the outlook for today’s teenagers over the next 10 years? What landscape will they face as they try to gain financial independence and set themselves up in adult life? The new Marmot report backs up our findings, with Institute for Employment Studies, that while the employment rate is high, the quality of work available to many young people is such that it may be bad for their health. As one young person from North Ayrshire put it:
‘On my zero hour contract it’s so unstable that one week I can earn £200 and the next week, £20.’
Low quality work can be bad for health, but if current trends continue over the next 10 years, many of today’s teenagers face a challenging work environment with little prospect of satisfying, well-paid work which supports their wellbeing.
It is clear that this generation has been dealt a difficult hand in terms of the wider determinants of health. Yet undeterred by the cards they are holding, the young people who have been involved in our inquiry have shown passion and enthusiasm with the ability to work hard and think through knotty problems. With their help we are now embarking on an exciting action phase for the inquiry to try to shift some of the systemic issues that could affect their long-term health.
As for the teenage boys down the road: as individuals, I think they’ll probably be OK. They live on a nice street in a leafy London suburb, where the healthy life expectancy is one of the highest in the country. I see their parents taking them to after-school sports, and I know that all of London’s jobs are just a train ride away. The data tells us that it is likely they, as individuals, will have long, healthy lives. Through our work, we want to make sure that all young people, no matter where they are born, will be able to thrive and be healthy, for decades to come.
Martina Kane is Policy and Engagement Manager in the Healthy Lives team at the Health Foundation.
This content originally featured in our email newsletter, which explores perspectives and expert opinion on a different health or health care topic each month.