A recent report from the Resolution Foundation has revealed a significant shift in the age demographic of individuals not working due to ill health.

Contrary to historical trends, the study indicates that people in their early 20s are now more likely to be unemployed due to health issues compared to their counterparts in their early 40s.

The foundation described this trend as “radically different” from the past, emphasising that in previous years, older individuals were more commonly affected by work limitations due to sickness.

The primary factor contributing to this shift is the alarming rise in poor mental health among young people, according to official figures.

In 2023, the report indicates that 5 percent of young individuals aged in their early 20s were economically inactive due to ill health. The study highlights a concerning increase in mental health issues among this age group, leading to adverse impacts on education outcomes and a higher likelihood of being engaged in lower-paid jobs or experiencing unemployment.

Poor mental health

Current data reveals that young people now have the poorest mental health compared to any other age group, a stark reversal from two decades ago when they had the lowest incidence of common mental disorders. In the year 2021/22, 34 percent of individuals aged 18 to 24 reported symptoms of mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, compared to 24 percent in 2000.

The economic repercussions of poor mental health are particularly pronounced for young individuals without a university education, with one in three non-graduate young people with a common mental disorder currently without work, according to Louise Murphy, senior economist at the Resolution Foundation.

The study underscores gender disparities, revealing that young women are one-and-a-half times more likely to experience poor mental health compared to young men, with rates at 41 percent and 26 percent, respectively. Additionally, 79 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds who are not working due to ill health have qualifications at GCSE level or below, in contrast to 34 percent of all individuals in that age group.

Low qualification levels

The Resolution Foundation is now advocating for enhanced mental health support in colleges and sixth forms, emphasising the need for more initiatives to prevent young people from leaving compulsory education with low qualification levels. The call for action is supported by the Health Foundation, a charity focused on improving health and care.

Jo Bibby, the director of the Health Foundation, emphasised the importance of “good employment and education” as the foundational elements of health, calling for comprehensive cross-government measures to prevent the emergence of a “lost generation” due to poor mental health. The study, funded by the Health Foundation and based on the Labour Force Survey, comes at a crucial time as it sheds light on the profound implications of mental health on the workforce, urging society to address this pressing issue.

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Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.