Youth worklessness due to ill-heath has almost doubled in a decade – and is heavily concentrated among those with poor qualification levels

Economic inactivity due to ill health among 18-24 year-olds has nearly doubled over the past decade, and is heavily concentrated among those struggling with education, with four-in-five young people who are too ill to work having only qualifications at GCSE-level or below, according to new research published today (Monday) by the Resolution Foundation.

The Foundation’s report Left behind, funded by the Health Foundation as part of the Young people’s future health inquiry, notes that overall levels of worklessness among young people are low. In early 2023, the number of young people not in education, employment or training (NEET) stood at 720,000, far below the post-financial crisis peak of 1.1 million.

However, beneath this welcome headline lies a far more worrying trend – a near doubling of the number of young people not working due to ill health, from 94,000 in 2012 to 185,000 in 2022. Today, almost one-in-four (23 per cent) workless young people are inactive because of ill health, up from less than one-in-ten (8 per cent) in 2012.

The Foundation adds that this worrying trend has gone completely under the radar, with policy makers’ attention focused instead on rising ill health among older workers.

Interestingly, the research shows that rates of youth worklessness due to ill health vary little between more and less deprived areas of the UK. This is in contrast to inactivity due to ill health across the population as a whole, which is concentrated in deprived areas.

Rather, young people living in major cities are the least likely to be workless because they are unwell. In 2020-2022, for example, 1.8 per cent of 18-24-year-olds in London, and 2.0 per cent of 18-24-year-olds in other core cities like Glasgow and Liverpool (both of which have significant levels of deprivation), were not working due to ill health.

In contrast, 3.4 per cent of 18-24-year-olds living in places dominated by small towns or villages, such as Derbyshire, Devon and South Wales, were inactive due to ill-health.

This picture can be explained in large part by the fact that many young people relocate from smaller places to big cities, firstly to study, and later to take up graduate jobs – changing the overall makeup of the population in these cities to one with a high share of students and graduates.

In fact, education lies at the heart of this geographical divide in youth worklessness due to ill-health.

Shockingly, four in five (79 per cent) of 18-24-year-olds who do not work due to their ill health only have qualifications at GCSE-level or below, compared to one-third of all young people.

This combination of ill health and low qualification levels puts these young people at a double disadvantage: should their health improve, their low skills will likely still leave them struggling in the labour market.

Policy makers should tackle this double disadvantage by addressing both problems – boosting educational support and access to mental health services.

The report says that educational support should be offered at a later stage, to enable young adults who may have missed out earlier in their lives to achieve higher-level qualifications, allowing them a ‘second chance’ – and ensuring they do not get left behind.

However it warns that, as the majority of young people who are workless due to ill health lack qualifications above GCSE level, a focus on university or apprenticeships risks missing the mark. Instead, policy makers must invest to make it easier for adults to achieve GCSE and A-Level skills (Levels 2 and 3) after leaving compulsory education, most obviously through funding courses for those aged 24 and above (currently funding is only available up to the age of 23).

Alongside this, access to mental health services should be improved. Between 2012 and 2019, over two thirds (65 per cent) of young people who were workless due to ill health had a common mental health disorder. With children and young people’s mental health services under considerable strain, and waiting times varying hugely between different parts of the UK, reducing these delays should be a policy priority.

Louise Murphy, Economist at the Resolution Foundation, said:

“Overall worklessness among young people is currently low, but beneath this welcome headline trend lies a worrying rise in the number of young people who are not working due to ill health.

“Worklessness due to ill health among young people is most common in small towns and villages, but reflects these young people’s low levels of education far more than the nature of their area. This highlights the protective effect that education can have on a person’s ability to access mental health support, and to succeed in the labour market.

“We cannot afford to let young people who are workless due to health problems get left behind, so we need both to improve their education opportunities and to ensure that everyone has access to better mental health support.”

Notes to Editors

  • This report is funded by the Health Foundation as part of the Young people’s future health inquiry project.