More than half a million young people in the UK say they are out of work due to long-term illness, a 44% increase in just four years.
Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that more than 560,000 people aged between 16 and 34 were economically inactive – meaning they were not in work or seeking work – in the first three months of 2023 due to long-term sickness.
The findings, which experts connect to a growing mental health crisis and an underinvestment in health services, are also reflected in other studies.
One report, by the Health Foundation, found that 16- to 34-year-olds were now “as likely to report a work-limiting condition as someone aged 45-54 years 10 years ago”.
The chief secretary to the Treasury, Laura Trott, recently caused controversy when she said people with mobility and mental health problems should do “their duty” and work from home or face having their benefits cut.
Mental health problems – including depression, bad nerves and anxiety – were most prevalent in the youngest age group, affecting more than a third of the 16- to 34-year-olds (36%) who were out of work due to long-term illness, according to the ONS labour force survey.
The equivalent figure was 31% among those aged 35 to 49 and 20% in the 50-64 cohort.
David Strain, a professor at the University of Exeter and chair of the British Medical Association’s board of science, said difficulties in accessing mental health services and “12 years of underinvestment in the public health sector” had contributed to poorer population health.
“We have a national disease service these days, not national health service. We are focused on treating sick people rather than keeping people healthy. And people haven’t had access to essential mental health services,” he said, adding that while long Covid had probably played a part in the increase, this was difficult to tease out from the available statistics.
The number of people stating they were out of work because of long-term illness also grew in the older age categories, although these increases were not as stark, affecting 1.4 million people aged between 50 and 64, a 26.7% rise on the 2019 figure, and 578,000 of 35- to 49-year-olds, up 16%.
Researchers point to a post-pandemic effect in the number of people out of work because of mental health problems, but they also say these problems are not new and that they are part of a wider trend that goes back to 2012.
The Health Foundation report shows that the rise in work-limiting conditions among young people has been mainly driven by mental health problems, with the proportion of people not working because of mental health issues almost doubling in 11 years, from 6.7% in 2012 to 12.7% in 2023.
Dave Finch, an assistant director of the healthy lives team at the Health Foundation, said its research showed there were now more than four times as many younger workers reporting mental health conditions that affect their working lives compared with a decade ago.
“Good mental health is built on having a stable income, social interaction and a good place to live. But we know that younger people face greater pay insecurity, are more likely to suffer financial strain due to high rents, and are likelier to feel lonely than other working-age people,” he said.