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Why policymakers need to focus on young people now Learnings from the Young people’s future health inquiry

20 September 2023

About 5 mins to read
  • April Whitworth

Young people’s health is in a worrying state. 185,000 18–24-year-olds are not working due to ill health. Child and adolescent mental health service referrals have soared by 76% since 2019, with 1.4 million seeking NHS mental health support last year. Those aged 16–29 years report feeling lonelier than any other age group. While these trends are concerning in themselves, we also need to be mindful of the ways they shape young people’s health throughout their lives.

As young people navigate the transition to adulthood, it is vital that the building blocks of their future health, such as good work and financial security, are in place. Negative experiences, such as unstable work, that weaken these building blocks can have long-term impacts on individual health, and the wider economy.

The Health Foundation’s Young people’s future health inquiry set out to understand the things that help or hinder young people’s transition to adulthood between 12 and 24 years. From 2020 to 2023, we funded five policy posts at the Resolution Foundation, RSA, Association for Young People’s Health (AYPH), Institute for Employment Studies (IES) and University of the West of England (UWE) working with Sustrans. Their findings show the challenges facing young people and how they can be addressed.

So, what does the generation of young people who have faced the pandemic, low economic growth and a cost-of-living crisis need for a healthy future?

Policymakers need to invest in the building blocks of health

The RSA describes today’s young people as ‘generation precariat’ – their lives are too often characterised by a lack of capital, stability or support, making it harder to navigate adversities.

Take housing: young people more often rent privately, and several Young Advisors from the RSA’s Young people’s future health and economic security project said they had little choice but to flat share with strangers, making it harder to relax and reducing their wellbeing. Health Foundation research from an earlier phase of the inquiry confirmed that prolonged stress weathers the body by increasing allostatic load. Despite this frequent lack of security and privacy, there’s still a big price tag. 16–24-year-olds spend an average of 47% of their gross income on rent, significantly higher than the national average of 33%.

Place matters too. Some areas have limited opportunities, so young people must travel for work and education. UWE found that 16–24-year-olds mainly rely on buses for travel, but service provision and affordability are inconsistent. Improved public transport would enable access to higher-quality opportunities, in turn improving long-term health outcomes. 

Improving these building blocks will require action across a range of departments, but there is a clear case for long-term investment in employment, housing and transport to support young people becoming healthy, thriving adults.

Young people need increased financial and social support

It’s no surprise that young people are struggling given that support systems have gaps in their provision of services. The RSA found that young people face an ‘endemic lack of security’, which they describe as a form of atomisation: ‘the breaking of societal bonds that should support young people, leaving them isolated and vulnerable’.

For example, young people are entitled to lower levels of housing benefit than other adults, and minimum wage is lower for young people. This lack of state support means the effects of recent crises have been exacerbated for young people, who are less financially and emotionally equipped to manage poverty and low pay.

Policymakers should recognise that young people cannot thrive alone and increase support for them, such as by rectifying inequality in social security systems. These mechanisms will support young people to secure the building blocks for a healthy future. 

This is also an area of interest for the Health Foundation – our Emotional Support for Young People programme is building evidence on how factors like poverty and parental working patterns affect parents’ ability to provide emotional support to young people.

Looking after young people’s health now supports the future economy

Poor health is increasingly driving economic inactivity among young people. 794,000 16–24-year-olds are not in employment, education or training (NEET) – almost 1 in 4 because of poor health, up from less than 1 in 10 in 2012.

Mental ill-health is central to this. Between 2012 and 2019, 65% of 18–29-years-olds who were economically inactive due to long-term sickness or disability had a mental health problem, and 18–29-year-olds with a common mental health disorder are more likely to become and remain NEET, according to the Resolution Foundation.  

But as a report for our Young people’s future health inquiry found, it's not just about having a job; it’s having a good job. In an IES survey, 57% of participants aged 16–25 years said mental health impacted their ability to access good-quality work, and the Resolution Foundation found that young people today are 60% more likely to work in unstable employment than in 2000. The lack of a stable income increases the risk of poverty and food insecurity, which are bad for health. 

The wider fiscal impacts are also worrying. Demographic projections show that the working-age population is estimated to grow just 4%, while the number of people older than 85 years is set to nearly double over the next 25 years. This means that every entrant into the labour market matters to achieve well-functioning public services and a prosperous economy.

Our upcoming commission on work and health will further explore the action needed to boost health outcomes and economic participation.

Policymakers must listen to the needs of young people 

How policies are developed and implemented is also important. The inquiry exemplified the importance of centring young people within research and policymaking through methods such as diary research by the RSA, panel events by AYPH and collaborative workshops by IES. Engagement with young people enabled richer insights and policy recommendations that more accurately reflected their experiences. In particular, AYPH‘s research amplified the voices of those not always heard, such as young people from minority ethnic backgrounds and care leavers, who experience health inequalities acutely.  

Now is the time to do more for young people 

With an election looming, it’s the perfect opportunity for policymakers to address the issues facing young people in their manifestos. Now is the time to empower young people by creating policies that enable them to secure the building blocks of health today in order to ensure prosperity for tomorrow.

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