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Youth long-term sickness is driving labour crisis, research suggests

Young Person Mental Health
Around 12pc of people in their 20s and early 30s say they are disabled because of their mental health - Aleli Dezmen/Cultura RF

People in their 20s are more likely to claim they are too sick to work than those in their 30s and 40s, amid fears a youth mental health epidemic is driving the crisis in Britain’s labour force.

In a new report laying bare the scale of the sickness emergency, the Resolution Foundation think tank reveals that around 6pc of people in their early 20s are economically inactive for health reasons.

This is a higher proportion than for any other age group below the late 40s, according to its analysis of official data from 2022. The proportion of long-term sick people in their 30s and early 40s hovers around 3pc or 4pc.

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The Resolution Foundation suggests that a surge in mental health problems among the young is to blame.

Around 12pc of people in their 20s and early 30s say they are disabled because of their mental health, more than any other age group.

This number has rocketed from about 2pc in 1998, when the problem was most common among workers in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

The findings come as Britain grapples with a jump in worklessness. A total of 9.3 million people are classed as economically inactive, up from 8.6 million before Covid. This includes millions suffering from long-term sickness.

Jo Bibby of the Health Foundation, which worked with the Resolution Foundation to produce the report, said: “Without concerted cross-government action, we risk creating a lost generation due to ill health.”

The Resolution Foundation finds that more than a third of young people aged 18 to 24 have symptoms consistent with a common mental disorder such as depression, anxiety or bipolar, even if they do not class themselves as disabled as a result.

This was only true of one in four at the start of the millennium, when young people were the least likely of any age group to have poor mental health.

Today they are the most affected age group – a trend that predates Covid but has been accelerated by the pandemic.

The rise in people unable to work for health reasons is a key concern for ministers, as Britain’s welfare bill is projected to soar.

The number of new Personal Independence Payment claims for a psychiatric condition made by 18-24-year-olds nearly trebled last year compared with 2016, rising from 8,000 to 23,000.

Meanwhile, the Resolution Foundation noted that more than half a million 18 to 24-year-olds received antidepressants in 2021-2022.

Ms Bibby said: “The increase in the incidence of mental illness in young people is one of the greatest health challenges we currently face. It is already directly impacting the health and well-being of millions of people. Also, it represents a major challenge to economic and public spending through the social security system and pressure on the NHS.”

Economists have long warned that it is crucial for young people to find their feet in the labour market quickly to avoid “scarring” in the form of lower life-time earnings.

Louise Murphy, an economist at the Resolution Foundation, said: “It is deeply concerning that the number of young people who are workless due to ill health has increased so significantly across the past two decades.

“Policy makers must take action to combat this, and to ensure people receive the support they need – both for health reasons, and to mitigate the serious long-term impact that periods of worklessness can have on the future earnings and career paths of those affected.”

The research shows that those with low educational attainment and mental health struggles are the most likely to be out of work.

It highlights that one in three young non-graduates who have a common mental health problem are currently workless.

Ms Murphy said policymakers ought to focus on improving support services in underserved colleges and ensure better provision for those resitting exams “so that everyone has qualifications to build on”.

It comes after the Office for National Statistics warned earlier in February that a sharp rise in people neither in work nor looking for a job was holding back economic growth, as the UK fell into recession at the end of the year.

The rise in poor mental health among young people presents a profound challenge for the labour market.

One in five 18 to 24-year-olds with mental health issues were out of work between 2018 and 2022, compared with 13pc of those with good mental wellbeing.

Meanwhile, the number of young people out of work from poor health has more than doubled over the past decade from 93,000 to 190,000.

The report found a strong overlap between people with poor qualifications and those out of work and struggling with their mental health.

Four in five young people unable to work because of their health only have qualifications at GCSE level or below, compared with a third across everyone aged 18 to 24.