Paul Vallance discusses the impact of Covid-19 on the well-being of young people in Birmingham, which affected their mental health, education and employment opportunities. This blog post was produced for inclusion in the Birmingham Economic Review for 2022. The annual Birmingham Economic Review is produced by the University of Birmingham’s City-REDI and the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce. It is an in-depth exploration of the economy of England’s second city and a high-quality resource for informing research, policy and investment decisions. This post is featured in Chapter 3 of the Birmingham Economic Review for 2022, on people and challenging times. Read the Birmingham Economic Review. Visit the WMREDI Data Lab to find out more about Birmingham.
Over the past ten years, there has been a growing recognition in both international organisations (e.g. the OECD, European Union) and national governments (including the UK) that a policy focus on economic growth (as measured by GDP) alone will not necessarily translate into widespread and sustainable improvements in people’s quality of life. An alternative way of thinking about economic development policies and metrics has focused on the concept of ‘wellbeing’ [European Council (2019) Draft Council Conclusions on the Economy of Wellbeing. (Council of the European Union: Brussels).].
This refers to the physical and mental health of individuals, but also to a wider range of economic, social, and environmental factors that are recognised to influence this at the level of a place-based community or population. Economic-related dimensions here include those that relate to work and employment, income and personal finance, and education, skills, and training [ OECD (2020) How’s Life? 2020: Measuring Well-being. (OECD Publishing: Paris).].
This focus on well-being is arguably more relevant than ever in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. A Policy Commission being led by the University of Birmingham, as part of the European University for Wellbeing (EUniWell) network, is currently looking at the impact of the pandemic specifically on the well-being of young people (15-24-year-olds). This is a demographic that may have been less at risk of serious illness from infection with COVID-19, but whose mental health was more likely to be negatively impacted than the UK population as a whole by the social restrictions introduced to limit the spread of the virus in 2020 [Pierce, M., Hope, H., Ford, T. et al. (2020) Mental health before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: a longitudinal probability sample survey of the UK population, Lancet Psychiatry 7, 883-892.].
The shock brought by the COVID-19 pandemic on the labour market also disproportionately affected young workers. At the outset of the crisis, full-time employees under 25 years old were 2.5 times more likely than those from older age groups to be employed in sectors (such as hospitality, non-food retail, and air travel) that were effectively shut during lockdown periods [Joyce, R and Xu, X. (2020) Sector shutdowns during the coronavirus crisis: which workers are most exposed? Institute for Fiscal Studies Briefing Note BN278. (The Institute of Fiscal Studies: London).].
The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme introduced by the government went a long way to mitigating the projected impact of the pandemic on unemployment, but this furlough programme was less effective in providing ongoing job security to many younger (and older) workers in more precarious forms of employment [Smith, N.R., Taylor, I. and Kolbas, V. (2020) Exploring the Relationship Economic Security, Furlough, and Mental Distress. (NatCen Social Research: London).]. Other studies have shown that the fall in employment rate during the first year of the pandemic was not equal across the workforce, but affected young Black and Asian people around three to four times more than young White people [Wilson, T. and Papoutsaki, D. (2021) An Unequal Crisis: The Impact of the Pandemic on the Youth Labour Market. (Youth Futures Foundation: London).].
Nowhere are these issues more pressing than in Birmingham. The city has a combination of a very large (and diverse) population of young people (almost 40% of the population is under 25) and a level of youth unemployment that is higher than in other major cities in the UK. This unemployment rate for 18–24-year-olds rose significantly during the first year of the pandemic: from 6.3% in February 2020 to 11.6% in March 2021 (which rises to around 20% of people in this age range who are in full-time education and not seeking work are discounted) [Shori, R., Crofton, M., McIntosh, A., Coleman, G., Horsfall, R. and Samuel, V. (2021) Breaking Down Barriers: Working Towards Birmingham’s Future. (Birmingham City Council: Birmingham).].
The extent to which this situation will harm the well-being of these young people is a major concern. Evidence from previous economic downturns has shown that young people experiencing the ‘scarring’ effects of a period of unemployment or financial insecurity early in their working lives are more vulnerable to suffering from poorer employment prospects and health outcomes throughout their future lives [Banks, J., Karjalainen, H. and Propper, C. (2020) Recessions and health: the long-term health consequences of responses to the coronavirus, Fiscal Studies 41(2), 337-344.].
Young people leaving education with qualifications below the university level will have found it especially difficult to find secure employment in the pandemic-affected labour market [Henehan, K. (2020) Class of 2020: Education Leavers in the Current Crisis. (Resolution Foundation: London).].
There is, therefore, a greater need than ever to support young people in Birmingham with this transition from education into employment. Given the unprecedented circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, this support should also as much as possible be applied retrospectively to the cohort of school leavers whose lives and career plans have been most disrupted over the past two and a half years.
This is also linked to the effect that the pandemic will have on the psychological well-being of young people. Making ongoing mental health support widely available through education providers, employers, and the health service will be an essential part of an inclusive post-pandemic recovery.
Even as the threat from COVID-19 fades into the background, the impending financial impact of the growing cost of the living crisis on vulnerable young people means that a focus on well-being will remain a key feature of any effective levelling-up programme.
This blog was written by Paul Vallance, Research Fellow, City-REDI, University of Birmingham.
Disclaimer: The opinions presented here belong to the author rather than the University of Birmingham.
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