Opinion: The lost generation

Opportunities are disappearing fast in an age group where mental health and wellbeing are often dependent on finding success and moving forward in life. Richard Dawson shines a light on the growing mental health crisis among young people and explores how the recession is exacerbating it

It should come as no surprise that young people are among the worst affected by the negative social and economic implications of COVID-19.

A pandemic of mental illness was spreading among the under-25s well before coronavirus came along and the young are often first to feel the heat of labour market fluctuations.

However, that we knew young people’s mental health and job prospects would be decimated by the disease does not make it any less of a tragedy.

For many of us, it’s in our late teens and early twenties that we begin to think about what kind of life we want to lead and get our first taste of living independently and supporting ourselves financially.

It’s a time when we step out into the world, form our most important relationships and set our sights on a career path that will carry us forward in the decades to come.

Much of that coming of age journey now hangs in the balance as a result of the public health emergency.

University places have been filled, internships have been postponed, graduate schemes have been curtailed, jobs offers have been withdrawn; all of which takes a heavy toll on an age group suffering from mental illness.

A combination of less social interaction, compromised sleeping patterns and excessive time spent on smart phones and social media has compromised the mental wellbeing of many youngsters.

Now, as carefully crafted futures disappear in the midst of the deepest recession in a century, the COVID generation is at risk of becoming the lost generation.

Emerging evidence reviewed by the Health Foundation paints a bleak picture.

On mental health outcomes, the analysis shows that, following the lockdown, there was a doubling of the proportion of young people not able to concentrate and a tripling of those unable to enjoy day-to-day activities.

This age group was also most likely to say that the lockdown had made their mental health worse.

Almost half (43 per cent) of respondents said they had experienced feeling unhappy or depressed, up from 27.5 per cent in 2017/18.

On labour market outcomes, the research showed that young people were most likely to be furloughed or lose their jobs and are also most at risk of long-term unemployment.

It found that one third of 18 to 24-year-olds have been furloughed or lost jobs during the pandemic, as opposed to just over one sixth of working-age adults generally.

Young people from low income households were most likely to have lost employment or had their hours cut, while those from minority ethnic backgrounds were twice as likely to have lost hours or be no longer working compared to their peers.

What this shows is that young people already experiencing disadvantage in society seem to be most affected by the economic implications of COVID-19.

The Government’s solution to this comes in the form of the Kickstart Scheme – a £2 billion commitment to create hundreds of thousands of six-month placements for young people who are currently on Universal Credit and at risk of long-term unemployment.

Under the scheme, employers can claim 100 per cent of National Minimum Wage and National Insurance contributions from the Government for up to 25 hours a week.

There will also be additional funding to help young people build their experience and move into sustainable employment after completing a Kickstart Scheme placement.

This is the kind of targeted policy that could deliver real benefit and plug some of the opportunity gaps in the career prospects of the under-25s. But more schemes to support young people will surely be required.

On the mental health challenge, there has been no comparable funding or policy announcement, which is particularly worrying given the degree to which the pandemic has exacerbated mental illness in young people.

When you consider that it can already take 12 months or more for someone with a mental disorder to access treatments through the NHS, the lack of Government intervention in this area is all the more concerning.

If the Government is serious about supporting those at the sharp end of the social and economic implications of COVID-19, then it must invest in improving mental health services, particularly for young people who are most likely to need therapy right now.

Intergenerational inequality was already a big problem going into 2020. But now, the need to level up opportunity and support across age demographics is right in front of us.