Unemployment and Mental Health in young people

The initial findings of the Understanding Society study make for interesting reading. The evidence that “unemployment is associated with worse mental well-being” fits with earlier studies, and the wide scale of this study will provide us with a range of insights in the years to come. Certainly this ongoing project will form an important parallel to any attempt by the Office for National Statistics to measure national wellbeing and be a useful tool for assessing government policy. The first data and some preliminary findings have been published.

Taylor’s analysis of the first set of Understanding Society data, in Chapter 6 of the Early Findings report, draws the conclusion that “Being unemployed has no impact on mental wellbeing among young people, all else being equal.” This contradicts the findings of a 2010 Prince’s Trust report, which found that unemployment has serious negative consequences on young people. It also contradicts my own experience of unemployment, and the experiences of my peer group.

The Prince’s Trust’s 2010 Youth Index report highlighted the experiences of NEET (not in employment, education or training) young people, and found that their ‘economic inactivity’ (as the Understanding Society report puts it) had specific damaging effects on their mental health and on their life satisfaction. Professor D. Blanchflower noted that “Joblessness has a knock-on effect on a young person’s self-esteem, their emotional stability and overall wellbeing. The longer the period they are unemployed for, the more likely they are to experience this psychological scarring.” He also noted that “unemployed young people living in the UK today are already less happy with their friendships, family life and health than those in work. They are also more likely to feel ashamed, rejected and unloved.”

The two studies therefore seem to contradict each other. Is there anything in the methodology or aims of the Understanding Society project that might explain this? The project has a very wide age range and a wide range of themes of study, whereas the Prince’s Trust report was focused solely on the wellbeing of young people. There are a few areas of methodology that could perhaps be improved in the Understanding Society study.

The Understanding Society study would benefit from a more nuanced, precise and sustained examination of the interaction between employment status and wellbeing. At present, the study measures two outcomes (employment status and reported life satisfaction), amongst a host of other outcomes, and compares them to see how they correspond. We need a more robust analysis of the causal links between unemployment and (dis)satisfaction.

Perhaps respondents could be asked how strong they perceive to be the link between their employment status and their wellbeing. They could then be asked whether the link is positive or negative (“Does being ‘economically inactive’ make you feel better or worse?” being the crudest example). Comparing this information with the individuals’ overall self-reported life satisfaction would be interesting.

Taylor’s analysis focuses on reported life satisfaction (a scale from 1 to 7, with 1 equating to complete dissatisfaction and 7 equating to complete satisfaction). It might be helpful to utilize a wider range of measures in evaluating wellbeing and mental health. The General Health Questionnaire scores could be used, for example, to give a more precise picture of a person’s wellbeing. This would again allow us to contrast these specific responses with the person’s overall self-reported satisfaction measure. This information would help us to study people’s resilience.

Cohort analysis, rather than a blanket 16-25 age group analysis, would also be helpful. This would allow us to examine the changing perceptions of specific age groups over time (and subsets within these age groups, such as those leaving school without qualifications, or people becoming NEET). Hopefully the study’s data will be configured so that this will be possible.

As a caveat for those seeking to draw conclusions from this information, we must be aware of the time-scale of its collection. This first set of data (Wave 1) was collected between January 2009 and December 2010, which means that it is not well suited to describing the impact of changes in the last six months. If we want to track the optimism of people looking for work, it would be better to examine a narrower period than two years, to better allow us to see how this changes with the economic climate. Whilst the period January 2009 to December 2010 as a whole may have been one of optimism, was this the case for November or December 2010? Of course, further waves of information (Wave 2 runs from January 2010 to December 2011) will allow us to more precisely engage with the evidence from a chronological perspective.

These are early days for the study, and I hope that as more data is acquired and analysed, more nuanced analysis will yield interesting and powerful information on young people’s wellbeing.

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