Do young people currently have the building blocks for a healthy future?

In October 2019, the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) released the “Young People’s Future Health Inquiry: The quality of work on offer to young people and how it supports the building blocks for a healthy life”, commissioned by the Health Foundation as 1 of 7 commissions aiming to understand the policy issues facing young people and what influences their future health. This 2-year inquiry set out to explore:

  • Whether young people currently have the building blocks for a healthy future,
  • what support and opportunities young people need to secure these building blocks,
  • the main issues that young people face as they become adults, and
  • what this means for their future health and for society more generally.

This report aimed to answer six key research questions:

  1. What do we know about how early experiences of the workplace shape young people’s lives at work and later working life – and therefore their long-term health?
  2. What is the nature of the work available to 18-24-year olds: in which sectors is this age group working; what are the pay, conditions and security; what are the training and development opportunities; and how does this vary geographically across the UK?
  3. What are the trends in the sectors of the labour market that young people work in, including regional variations, and what are the implications of this?
  4. What would ‘good’ look like in terms of creating good quality entry-level work for 18-24-year olds, including proposals for change?
  5. What are the barriers for achieving this?
  6. What are ‘the asks’ of policy and practice (national and local) to deliver the support required – “who, what, how”?

In addition, the report highlights how the labour market experiences of young people today differ on a more granular level based on geography and personal characteristics. To complement the quantitative analysis, the findings from a focus group discussion are also included. The focus group comprised of 12 young adults aged 18-24 from five different areas in the UK (Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and two areas in England). The group was highly diverse in terms of educational, socio-economic, and ethnic background and balanced in respect of gender.  Apart from their own experiences, the young people were able to share the experiences of other young people in their respective areas, as they had conducted interviews with young adults on their labour market experience during earlier stages of the inquiry. There were seven emerging themes from the discussion that feature in all geographical areas and affect to a different degree young people from different backgrounds.

Those themes were:

  1. Insecurity
  2. Wealth divide
  3. Lack of parity esteem between vocational studies and academic studies
  4. Transport
  5. Precarious forms of work;
  6. Career paths after apprenticeships
  7. Employers’ hiring attitudes and provision of training opportunities

Young people and the world of work

Similarly, this report posits that ‘NEET’ may be inadequate as a term because quality of work, education and training is of equal, if not greater significance. For example, pay for young people has not recovered since the crisis, on the rise from 2014 to 2018 but not reaching past levels. Despite the decrease in the proportion of young people combining work with study there has been an increase in part time work and decrease in overall hours worked. Youth underemployment, defined this as “the proportion of people who would like to work more hours”, has also not returned to pre-crisis levels despite improving since then.

Young people in their focus group reported that welfare system didn’t provide them with adequate support, encouraging them to take any job rather than a good job that would suit their aspirations. The respondents linked the pressure to take ‘any job’ to poor mental health outcomes. The scarcity of ‘good quality’ employment opportunities was raised repeatedly by young people. For example, many spoke of how the lack of full-time permanent employment opportunities meant that they were ‘forced’ to accept employment with fewer hours than they would have hoped. Unemployment, or the fear of unemployment, was said to place young people under high levels of stress and leave them with no choice but to accept underemployment. Young people taking part in the focus group cited casual work, seasonal work and employment through Zero Hour Contracts (ZHC) as examples of the precarious work young people are experiencing. The insecure nature of these forms of employment leaves young people unable to plan for their immediate and long-term futures. They linked this instability to poor mental health outcomes and expressed frustration at the lack of career progression and development that resulted from these forms of employment.

This is concerning given that the length of time in education has increased across nations but hasn’t led to higher socio-economic status or wider reporting of raised aspirations. In fact, it appears that young people are “downgrading” in the labour market, i.e. working in elementary professions despite having higher levels of education. This is often observed among graduates, who can experience difficulty securing employment that pays off their substantial student loans. Despite the growing concern that University may not be for all, the inquiry revealed that qualifications and skills gained in vocational education were seen as less transferable than skills and qualifications gained as part of university unless they could access the occupation in which they had trained. A number of young people believed that employers did not value vocational qualifications as highly as A-Levels and degrees. The perceived ‘stigma’ of having sought a vocational route into employment was said to be furthered by an emphasis on traditional ‘academic’ routes by teaching staff in schools. Public perceptions may be holding back young people from exploring all the opportunities available to them that may suit them better than a traditional pathway.

The cost of public transport was raised as a common issue for young people (also touched on in our 2019 Youth Census Report), with the majority struggling with the costs of travelling to work. Some of those living in rural areas suggested that their transport needs would be best served by owning a car, but that affording a car was an unattainable goal as their wages were insufficient and did not allow them to save. Alarmingly, young people also linked inadequate transport services and consequent sense of isolation to poor mental health and suicide in rural areas.

Key Recommendations

  1. To introduce an education, employment and training guarantee – with guaranteed high quality careers and employment support for all, a choice of education and training places for those under 19, and a guaranteed job, apprenticeship or training for all of those not in education or employment for more than four months; To improve outreach to those furthest from good quality work – building on efforts in all of the four nations to improve multi-agency working, map provision, and build on community and youth work approaches;
  2. Targeted support for those facing additional barriers – particularly for disabled young people, those with childcare needs, and those facing additional costs for transport and housing;
  3. A renewed focus on the quality of work, promoting existing initiatives for youth employment specifically – most notably Youth Employment UK’s ‘Youth Friendly Employer’ standards, around ‘Creating Opportunity, Recognising Talent, Fair Employment, Developing People and Youth Voice’;
  4. Supporting a more coordinated and integrated approach – testing new approaches to devolution and integration, while also ensuring a strong youth voice in decision-making and that the Youth Charter places employment at its heart; and
  5. Investing in ‘what works’ resources – in order that government, key funders and wider stakeholders can come together to develop the evidence base on what works, design the resources needed to support more organisations to do this, support its implementation, and transform employment outcomes for young people.

They also recommend moving beyond the old measures of NEET rates and instead developing a new approach based on not just the quantity but the quality of employment and learning for young people. This should comprise:

  1. Engagement: Participation in good quality education, training and/ or employment for all young people who are able to do so;
  2. Attainment: Achievement of the highest possible level of skills – with all young people achieving good levels of literacy, numeracy and digital skills;
  3. Support for high levels of good quality employment: Achievement of the highest possible level of employment for young people, in work that provides income security and training/development to progress; and reduction in the numbers of young people who are under-employed, involuntarily in part-time work or temporary work and who experience occupational downgrading.

Our view

This is a really important piece of work from the Health Foundation, too often the rise in employment rates are celebrated without real consideration of the quality of that employment and the impact it has on individuals. As has been clearly identified poor quality work can have a real impact on a person’s mental health and well-being along, as well as affecting their future earning potential.

As you consider this research along with research from Impetus it should be a concern that the people most at risk of poor quality work are those from disadvantage backgrounds and are often the people being left behind by society.

We were delighted that the recommendations have highlighted our work to support employers to become Youth Friendly. Youth Employment UK co-developed the principles of good youth employment with young people in response to some of these barriers that have been raised with us overtime. Our work also extends to helping youth friendly employers develop better policies and procedures that will support them with their recruitment and development of young employees.



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