Young People Are Unhappier Than Ever

The happiness and confidence of 16- to 25-year-olds in the UK has nosedived to lows not seen in over a decade.

05 May 2022, 8:00am

Every once in a while, Nevada-Aaliyah Claxton and her friends will FaceTime and just cry. They weep over who they didn’t get to be, the plans they didn’t get to realise, and the abrupt closing of an unfinished chapter of their lives before they had to start a new, adult one with its responsibilities and burdens.

“I love who I am now, but I also really miss the innocence you have before you see [things like a pandemic],” she says. “I feel like I view the world completely differently now.”

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Claxton, 19, from Luton, is in the second year of what would have been a single gap year and plans to apply for university through clearing this summer. She had started a degree at City, University of London last September but left after three weeks because she wasn’t coping.

COVID-19 has stolen a chunk of her youth, but she feels the grief and struggles are far from over. And she’s not alone. One in four young people in Britain thinks it’s unlikely they’ll ever recover from the emotional impact of the pandemic, according to a study by the Prince’s Trust. The same research found the happiness and confidence of 16- to 25-year-olds has nosedived to a 13-year low.

Lauren Roberts-Turner, 19, from the Peak District, is a member of Leaders Unlocked’s youth board and part of a team that worked with the London School of Economics (LSE) to produce guidance for policy informed by young people’s experiences of the pandemic. She was shocked by how bleak some of the findings were. “Young people aren’t just struggling with their mental health because of isolation, even though that was a big factor; it was that they felt like there was an existential problem because they had been so failed.”

Separate Office for National Statistics research shows young people are also significantly more likely to experience high levels of anxiety and loneliness than the general population even now that COVID restrictions have been lifted.

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Young people, like Claxton, feel unfairly affected by policymakers’ decisions – and unsupported during the fallout. “I always make the joke to my friends that every time you say it can’t get worse, something even more disheartening pops up out of nowhere, and you sit back, and you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, they [the government] really are not bothered about people our age at all,’” she says. “A lot of us really aren’t okay.”

Nevada-Aaliyah Claxton and Lauren Roberts-Turner, both 19.

Claire Carroll, a youth development lead in Birmingham for the Prince’s Trust, has been a youth worker for a decade and is seeing a “heaviness” among young people that she hasn’t before. “They are really struggling at the moment, and it’s very noticeable,” she says.

“Heavy” is an appropriate word to describe the load young people have found themselves shouldering. Younger generations have suffered disproportionately compared with older generations over the past decade, research by the Intergenerational Foundation (IF) has found.

“From unemployment to low wages, unaffordable housing costs to sky-high student fees, interest rates, and debt; declining mental health to the COVID-19 pandemic, the position of younger generations has either stagnated or declined,” says Liz Emerson, a co-founder of IF.

Michaela James, a research officer at Swansea University’s Medical School, has been researching what young people want to help them recover from the past two years and found that being involved in decision-making would have been a good start. “The COVID recovery plans were so focused on getting the economy back on its feet, prioritising adults and getting them back into work. There’s been a massive oversight in helping young people gain some resilience back and retake control of their own lives.”

The pandemic has undoubtedly changed young people’s lives in previously unimaginable ways, but the root of many of their problems began more than a decade ago with the deeply unequal slashing of local funding. Nikita Simpson, a postdoctoral research officer at LSE’s Department of Anthropology and a researcher on the Leaders Unlocked report, says: “The last 12 years of austerity has really stripped out funding at local authority level, and that has totally decimated youth infrastructures in terms of youth centres, youth workers, psychotherapy services, you name it.”

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Still, the situation looks likely to worsen, particularly where financial precarity and its knock-on effects are concerned. Students and graduates in England and Wales will pay up to 12 percent interest on their loans this autumn, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). High earners with loans of about £50,000 will be plunged further into debt, thanks to the extra £3,000 interest will cost them over six months. Those earning below the £49,130 salary threshold won’t fare much better because their interest will rise from 1.5 percent to 9 percent. 

Student loan reforms that will see people starting university in 2023 paying back what they borrow over 40 years rather than the current 30 are also expected to hit lower-earning graduates more than their higher-earning counterparts. And there have been suggestions that young people, rather than current billpayers, should pay for the government’s net zero plans because they are more likely to benefit.

A Level students protesting against having their results downgraded during COVID-19. Photo: Jacky chapman / Alamy Stock Photo

This month’s national insurance rise and the freezing of tax thresholds pull younger people into the taxation system sooner. Emerson describes the situation as “taxation by stealth” at a time when nearly two-thirds of young people’s weekly spending is already on essentials.

“Young people now face an energy crisis, cost-of-living crisis, and rampant inflation, all of which will squeeze their generation further and erode the value of any cash savings they might have,” Emerson says.

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Whitney Jones, 22, a community presenter for AUK Radio, says money is already a huge issue for her, and she considers herself among the lucky ones because she has a job. Finding work wasn’t straightforward, though. “I have probably sent over 200 job applications in the past two years, had 10 interviews and two job offers... There’s a lot of pressure already for this generation and taxes rising will only add to it.”

Independence also comes at a hefty cost. Sixteen- to 24-year-olds living independently, either renting or owning a place, are almost twice as likely to be financially precarious than those living with family. But many young people find they cannot move out in the first place. In 2021, 28 percent of 20- to 34-year-olds – 3.6 million people – were living at home with their parents, an increase of four percentage points from a decade ago.

Aria Patel, 21, moved back into her parents’ Hertfordshire home after graduating from university last year. She would like to regain the independence she had, but renting isn’t an option as she saves and has just enough money to get by. She expects it will be a least a year or two before she has gathered enough for a deposit. “While I was at uni, I built up my skills to be able to live independently but then because of money issues, I made the decision to stay at home for the time being,” she says.

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Young people on low incomes needing to top up their wages with universal credit are also penalised – for being young. The more than 794,000 16- to 24-year-olds who rely on the benefit receive considerably less than those aged 25 and over. “It’s just appalling because your costs are not lower because you’re younger,” Roberts-Turner Young says. “The more you look at it, the more you realise how our welfare state is trapping young people in deprivation.”

Meanwhile, NHS waiting lists have hit record highs, with more than 6.1 million people waiting for surgery. Even before the pandemic, young people worried about the strain on the health service, which sometimes made them reluctant to seek help despite warning signs of declining health. The problem of wait times is often discussed in terms of delayed hip replacements and cataract operations, but it affects young people too.

Crown Agabi, 20, was told she would have eye surgery in January to treat a genetic condition but is still waiting for her appointment. She hopes it happens before she moves to Leeds to study in September because that has already been delayed by a year since she had to appeal the A-level results she was awarded during the pandemic or risk her place at university.

She has wanted to study medicine for as long as she can remember and hopes to fully recover before her course starts. “I want to get it over and done with as quickly as possible because it affects me daily,” says Agabi, who runs an awareness-raising campaign called Change Black Mental Health.

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The extent to which young people feel let down leads them to think not only about the impact inflicted on them but also on future generations. Karolina Zadroga, 22, arrived in the UK from Poland in 2005 and worries there is little hope of improving things in her adopted nation. “Some people wonder, ‘Why don’t young people have kids?’ without even bothering to look around at the horrible, insufferable world they have created for us.”

From the mental health crisis and fractured education to out of reach independence and dwindling services, the issues pile on top of each other to create an unbearable load. “We are in danger of consigning younger generations to impoverished old ages by continuing to over-burden them with unprecedented housing costs, high costs of living, precarious employment, 40 years of student debt repayments and high taxation, while also pushing too many public spending and pension liabilities into the future,” Emerson says.

Instead of putting the interests of the grey vote and short-term political gain before the interests of young people, the government should introduce policies that would see older, wealthier generations contributing more towards their increasing longevity, she says. That could include measures such as fair taxation on unearned income from things like house price growth and pension wealth to redress the balance. 

Young people also know what recovery from this low point would look like for them. They want investment and support for community infrastructure and youth services, education to be more than just a place for learning but also to reconnect with each other, rent reforms and, above all, to be listened to when decisions directly affecting them are made. 

“Young people are already at such a crux in terms of having to deal with so much,” Roberts-Turner says. “Not improving things and making life better is not really an option.”

@emilysgoddard

Tagged:

Politics, mental health, Youth, young people, happiness, University, jobs

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