On the 1 January 2000, a news item on the BBC website described the battle to be Britain’s first baby of the new millennium. Twenty years on, some might wonder who would want to be 20 in 2020? 

The coronavirus pandemic has dealt multiple and varied blows to people across the UK in terms of their health and wellbeing as well as their livelihoods. For young people the experience has, in the main, been one of self-sacrifice. While they have been largely unaffected by the virus itself, the impact of the containment measures has been – and is likely to continue to be – severe.

The Health Foundation’s Young people’s future health inquiry showed that between the ages of 12–24, young people need to accumulate four assets in order to make a smooth transition to adult life: appropriate skills and education, emotional support, social connections, and a financial and practical safety net. These assets were all found to be associated with starting adult life with ‘a home, a job and a friend’ – what many describe as the basis for good health. 

Our research, led by priorities identified by young people themselves, showed that these assets were not evenly distributed across young people and were highly dependent on their local contexts. Young people’s circumstances – their schooling, ability to work and to socialise – have all been compromised during the pandemic. With the UK now officially in recession, and with the prospect of further local lockdowns, they face a precarious future. 

Policymakers and local leaders need to learn the lessons from the past to avoid a ‘COVID-generation’ of young people who become more and more disadvantaged as the social and economic repercussions of the pandemic ricochet through our communities.
Jo Bibby, Director of Health

Over the past months we have been speaking to some of the young people involved in our inquiry about their experiences of lockdown. They describe the difficulties of continuing with their studies at home, including finding it hard to motivate themselves, and a lack of the equipment and space needed for them to work effectively. They also talk about the loss of wider opportunities and experiences vital to building their self-confidence and networks. 

The themes from these first-hand experiences are also reflected in wider survey data that has been collected during the pandemic – as outlined in our recent long read. With young people most likely to be working in the sectors that have closed or where staff have been furloughed, many are facing financial hardship and insecurity. This will have knock on effects on their ability to stay in rented housing and the lack of adequate levels of housing benefit for young people may mean that many face homelessness in the coming months.

The challenges that young people have experienced during the pandemic haven’t fallen evenly. Those with families that can provide a financial safety net, the space for study or stop-gap accommodation, are experiencing at least a temporary cushion. Those who started the pandemic with fewer resources have seen them eroded to a greater degree with, for example, renters facing greater hardship than homeowners. The controversy surrounding exam results has also underlined the way in which structural inequalities, if they go unrecognised, can hold young people back from achieving their potential.

For many this is already taking a toll on their wellbeing and mental health. It is also eroding their ability to accumulate the assets needed to make a smooth transition into adulthood and will have implications for their long-term health and wellbeing. Much has been written about the scarring effects of growing up in a recession, so we aren’t flying blind. Policymakers and local leaders need to learn the lessons from the past to avoid a ‘COVID-generation’ of young people who become more and more disadvantaged as the social and economic repercussions of the pandemic ricochet through our communities. 

The Health Foundation is funding a set of posts in organisations working on a range of factors that influence young people’s future health prospects – including economic insecurity and the quality of work. Conceived before any of us had heard of COVID-19, these posts are timely and relevant to young people’s experiences of the pandemic and are already beginning to provide ideas and insight on the action that needs to be taken.

Young people have sacrificed much through the pandemic and face continued uncertainty. This needs to be repaid through the investment in schooling, youth services, training and housing required to give them the foundations for a healthy life. Young people’s future health and wellbeing matters to us all as they are the key workers, civic leaders and parents of the future. Unless their future is secured all our lives will be diminished.

Jo Bibby (@JoBibbyTHF) is Director of Health 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.

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