Decline of early parenthood behind youth worklessness tumbling by over a quarter since mid-1990s – but increased long-term worklessness among young men risks putting progress into reverse
The share of young people who are workless has fallen by over a quarter since the mid-1990s, when it was a major social and economic problem, but this decline is predominantly down to falling inactivity among young women, with inactivity among young men now rising, according to new research published today (Monday) by the Resolution Foundation.
The report Not working, supported by the Health Foundation, finds that youth worklessness fell by 300,000 between 1995 and 2021, from 1.1 million to 800,000. Young women accounted for 280,000 of this decline, with overall worklessness falling by just 20,000 among young men.
Youth worklessness among minority ethnic groups has also fallen sharply. Among young people from Black, Bangladeshi and Pakistani backgrounds it has fallen by 9, 13 and 10 percentage points respectively. However, young people from these backgrounds are still more likely to be workless than those from White or Indian backgrounds.
As well as shrinking overall, the research finds that the nature of youth worklessness in modern Britain has changed.
Unemployment (in which a workless person is actively looking for work) has fallen for both young men and women, while economic inactivity (where a workless person is not looking for work) has fallen sharply for women (from 18 per cent in 1995 to 10 per cent in 2021), but risen for men (from 5 to 9 per cent).
Falling worklessness among women has been driven primarily by falling rates of young parenthood, as well as an increase in the number of women who choose to combine parenting with work. The number of 18-24-year-old women who were economically inactive due to family care responsibilities fell by 220,000 (almost 80 per cent) between 2006 and 2021.
However, the switch from unemployment to rising inactivity among young men needs urgent attention because inactive young people are less likely to move into work or study than unemployed young people. The Foundation’s research finds that the proportion of workless young men who are workless for more than a year rose from 56 per cent to 70 per cent between 1995 and 2021.
A key driving force behind this worrying trend is rising inactivity due to long-term sickness or disability, which accounts for three-quarters of the rise in inactivity among young men.
Between 2006 and 2021, inactivity among young men because of long-term illness or disability more than doubled, rising by 45,000 to reach 91,000. Women saw a smaller rise of 28,000 during this same period.
Looking more closely at these figures, the Foundation finds that mental health problems are key part of the growth in health issues (for both men and women) that lie behind economic inactivity in young people.
This reflects a marked increase in the number of young people reporting a common mental health disorder (CMD) in recent years, says the Foundation. Between 1995 and 2018-2019, the proportion of young men aged 18-29 with a CMD rose from 17 per cent to 24 per cent, and the proportion of young women from 29 per cent to 34 per cent.
Mental health problems also raise the risk of prolonged worklessness. Among young people who become workless, those with a CMD are 27 per cent more likely to remain workless for at least a year, compared to those without a CMD.
The Foundation warns that should these recent trends continue, the progress made by young women will be more than offset by rising inactivity, and the number of workless young people will again begin to rise.
Louise Murphy, Economist at the Resolution Foundation, said:
“Back in the 1990s, widespread worklessness among young people was a major social and economic problem. Welcome progress has been made since then, with youth worklessness now down by more than a quarter, and young women making the biggest strides.
“But there are troubling signs for young men who have seen inactivity rates – and the risk of prolonged worklessness that comes with them – increase.
“Rising inactivity among young men has been driven by an increase in people suffering from long-term ill-health or a disability, with mental health problems in particular increasing the chance of young people becoming workless, and remaining workless for longer.
“Unless we address these challenges now, there is a risk that the welcome progress made in recent decades could soon go into reverse, with widespread youth worklessness becoming a major problem in Britain once again.”
Martina Kane, Policy and Engagement Manager at the Health Foundation, said:
“The extent to which mental health issues are contributing to worklessness among young people, particularly young men, is deeply concerning. A failure to address the growing rate of poor mental health could leave an enduring legacy as young people with mental health problems are more likely to become workless and remain workless for longer. This is likely to be fueling a vicious cycle as we know that good quality work supports people’s health and wellbeing, including their mental health.
“Good quality work is a key building block of good health. Leaving young people to struggle without support for either their mental health or their employment prospects risks not only their immediate health, but also their future health. We hope that these findings will provide a wakeup call for policy makers to take targeted action.”