'The Covid Generation?’ How do we improve the experience of work and its impact on health for young people?

Blog posts

8 Jul 2020

Daryl Sweet

Daryl Sweet, Health Foundation Research Fellow

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Many people working in the employment and health sectors agree that work is a key determinant of health and wellbeing outcomes. But never has this felt more tangible than in our current context of Covid-19 and recovery, where the relationship between work and health (and the risks to health) is regularly being discussed in mainstream media. Employment has always impacted health, but young people may never have been as conscious as now of their own health as a key factor in their employment decisions.

I joined IES at the start of June as Health Foundation Research Fellow, with a brief to lead a three-year project as part of the action phase of the Health Foundation’s Young people’s future health inquiry. This inquiry thus far sought to understand 12 to 24-year-olds’ perspectives about the resources and assets they need to transition to healthy adulthood. IES led a project as part of this, establishing the evidence base on the quality of work for young people and how it supports health. For the action phase, the Health Foundation is funding five organisations to employ and support Research Fellows who will develop and test policy ideas that address the topics that emerged in their listening phase. IES is one of these organisations and my work will be focusing on improving the experience and quality of work.

I will build further on the research to date, working to address gaps in the evidence base and produce solution-focused outputs that are tailored to the different contexts of the four UK nations. These will concentrate on how we improve the quality of work for young people, increase participation in employment (particularly for the most disadvantaged), how we can support employers to improve the quality of and access to employment for young people, and ultimately, how we can achieve lasting systemic change.

The listening phase of the inquiry and its constituent projects were conducted before the current employment crisis caused by the impact of Covid-19, the lockdown, and the subsequent recession. This new context magnifies the risks to young people’s health identified in the Health Foundation’s work – including challenging housing markets, a job market where young people struggle to secure rewarding work, and a fragmented approach to spending and investment to young people across government departments.

We know that young people who are the most marginalised, vulnerable and disadvantaged suffer the most in times of recession and in my view, this is where much of our work should be focused. Since joining IES I have been impressed by the energy and collaboration evident in the sector to address these problems urgently. This includes the Youth Employment Groups I have been virtually sitting on, which are working together to create recommendations to respond effectively to the impact of coronavirus on the employment prospects of young people. IES too has been working rapidly to address these issues, including in our ‘Getting Back to Work’ report in early April, and with other members of the Youth Employment Group secretariat in a report published in May on securing a place for young people in the economic recovery.

There is no doubt that the economic impacts of this crisis could have a disproportionate and negative impact on young people and particularly those most vulnerable, but I do believe that the response to the crisis also presents opportunities for meaningful change in youth employment, with real focus and urgency evident in the sector to address the risks to young people. This is why sector engagement is going to be central, to ensure I stay connected to the work of other organisations and am agile in how the project plan responds to what’s happening around us, as well ensuring the sector’s response is informed by the Health Foundation’s findings on the assets young people need to transition to healthy adulthood. I’m hoping in my role to support the immediate crisis response while also working towards longer-term system change over the three years of the project.

More broadly, I’m keen that this project can offer some meaningful and novel solutions to the question of work quality and access, at a time when both aspects of employment are at risk for young people. Understanding what works is key. We know quite a lot about supporting people into work, but much less about the impact of the quality of work on health and well-being and even less about how Covid’s legacy might interact with this. From my experience as a social researcher working in the fields of mental health and well-being, one route to novel solutions is accessing marginalised groups and empowering them to participate meaningfully, as well as moving beyond the ‘usual suspects’ when it comes to who we engage with, in order to hear from ‘less heard’ voices. The Health Foundation  is also keen that these posts amplify the voices of young people themselves. This means being creative in how we foster participation in the project, the types of young people we talk to and the way that we build on the existing evidence.

If we can do this effectively, there is potential to access new ideas and effective solutions, that expand on - and even challenge - the received wisdom about what works for young people’s employment. This is particularly important when the current cohort of young people are facing challenges not experienced by recent generations. My hope is that as a sector, we can minimise the opportunities lost and the harm done to young people as a result of the pandemic, while also capitalising on the focus and energy that the pandemic has prompted, to achieve lasting change.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.