Quality housing and good work are the foundations of good health. That’s why it’s worrying that the Resolution Foundation reports that rising rents are preventing young people from being able to move to the UK’s big city centres for work, where salaries are higher and the opportunities greater. 

Many young people face an impossible choice that could seriously impact their long-term health whichever option they go for – unaffordable housing and better work opportunities, or secure housing and poorer quality work. 

This news may not come as a surprise. Changes to the housing market mean that many young people now face an insecure future, with the traditional milestones on the path to adulthood – such as leaving home – largely inaccessible for today’s younger generation. Young people who do manage to fly the nest are likely to be living in the private rental sector, forcing them to move regularly, often experiencing poor accommodation and unscrupulous landlords. 

Millennials also spend almost a quarter of their income on housing, an increase from the 17% spent by baby boomers at the same age. Homeownership has fallen dramatically – just a quarter of 24–35-year-olds own their own home today, compared with around half of the same age group 25 years ago. 

Recent data from the English Housing Survey demonstrated a dramatic rise in those aged 25–34 living in the private rental sector, increasing from 28% to 44% in the past 10 years. 

The issue of young people and housing is a problem that isn’t going anywhere, with reports stating that around 1.5 million more people aged 18–30 will be pushed towards renting in 2020. 

Our work with young people around the UK as part of the Young people’s future health inquiry has shown that quality housing is a key building block for a healthy future, identified both by experts and the young people themselves. 

We heard young people describing the high costs of housing, particularly in the private rental sector, preventing them from gaining independence and stability. They also told us about the barriers to accessing quality housing, particularly if a young person was in insecure work or did not have a guarantor. At the end of the day, the future health of our next generation is our nation’s greatest asset and policy should be geared towards securing that asset. 

Young people’s problems when it comes to having a secure home are clearly on the agenda of our most senior policymakers. Some positive steps have been taken in recent months, such as the planned ban on short-notice evictions for renters and putting an end to letting fees. However, we must ensure that this work continues. 

It is as yet unclear which direction our new Prime Minister will take on housing, but it is likely that homeownership will be the main focus. However, it is probable that even with the best economic conditions, millennials will only reach the homeownership rates of Generation X by the age of 45, as the Intergenerational Commission recently found

The private rental sector is the reality for most young people today and we must ensure that it is working for them. If policy focuses solely on homeownership we risk exacerbating already widening inequalities. Secure housing which creates a sense of place is vital to creating resilient young people who are involved in their communities and who can look forward to the future and thrive. 

An emphasis on improving pathways to homeownership doesn’t reflect the reality that more and more young people in the UK aren’t living in owned accommodation. The percentage of young adults living in owned property has fallen from 55% to 38% since 2008, and nearly a million more young adults are living with their parents than was the case two decades ago. 

Young people today are faced with a conflict between an almost ingrained point of view that homeownership equates to success, and a recognition that this is becoming increasingly unattainable. This conflict is likely preventing them from feeling that they have fully reached adulthood. 

As a society, we risk letting these young people down if we don’t get it right with housing policy. There must be a constructive dialogue about providing quality homes and places for young people to thrive. The time during which homeownership was the be all and end all of a successful move into adult life is over. 

We must radically rethink the private rental system. This should take into consideration the sub-standard and insecure conditions that some young people are currently facing, such as living in overcrowded residences and regularly having to move house. However, we must also bear in mind the potential future impact on young people themselves and to the entire country as a result of a potential future health crisis if things do not change. 

The most recent English Housing Survey revealed that private renters – the youngest group – have the lowest satisfaction with their tenure. This could be seen as a distinction between the haves and the have-nots, but it also underlines an ever-expanding chasm between an ageing population of homeowners and a youth that is struggling to find a secure place to call home. 

The future health of young people is our most important asset as a nation. Providing quality homes, whether owned or rented, for the next generation is a vital part of our collective future success. Providing young people with the foundations for a healthy future must be at the heart of all policy and housing is no exception. 

Whether it is planning and building new homes or changing the laws to protect tenants, if future health is not considered when it comes to developing housing policy we risk damaging our young people and our nation. 

Over the past two years the Health Foundation has conducted research and engagement across the UK to understand the influences affecting the future health of young people aged 12 to 24. The inquiry seeks to understand the ability young people have to access the core building blocks of health – a place to call home, secure and rewarding work, and supportive relationships with their friends, family and community. 

We are now working with expert organisations including the Chartered Institute of Housing to provide a deep dive into these building blocks of health. We will report our policy recommendations later this year as part of our Young people’s future health inquiry

We firmly believe that bringing health and housing policy together will create a healthier future for our young people. 

Jo Bibby (@JoBibby) is Director of Health at the Health Foundation. 

This article was originally published in the Developer on 20 August 2019. 

Further reading

Learning report

Listening to our future

June 2018

The first report from the Young people's future health inquiry, sharing the learnings from our early...

Learning report

A place to grow

December 2018

The second report from the Young people’s future health inquiry, exploring site visits with young...

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