Why are young people in Britain so miserable?

Earlier this month, The Prince’s Trust released their annual Macquarie Youth Index report, which looks into the views of young people aged 16 to 25 in the UK. The report revealed that the well-being of those surveyed had fallen to their lowest level since the study was first commissioned in 2009.

The Index found that from nearly 2,200 respondents, 61% of them felt regularly stressed, 53% felt anxious, 47% experienced mental health issues and 27% often felt hopeless about the future. Respondents reported feeling too much pressure to achieve and felt they lacked control over their own lives.

The press reacted with interest, but I did not find the report shocking. The reasons why youth well-being has plummeted in recent years are painfully obvious. Young people today are facing the rising cost of education, a competitive job market, overpriced housing and the fallout from huge global and political issues.

UK graduates are saddled with the highest student debt in the developing world, according to the IFS. In 2012, tuition fees were tripled and again raised to £9,250 last year. In 2016, maintenance grants were scrapped. From 2017, BBC News claims that the average student debt upon graduation will be £50,800. The high interest on student loans combined with the £25,000 repayment threshold means that three-quarters of graduates may never repay their loans. The rise in tuition fees has encouraged a consumer culture in education, in which courses are less about learning and more about money. Universities now push to meet targets whilst students question if their degrees are worth the cost.

Further education has also taken a hit. The scrapping of EMA in 2011 was linked to the fall in student numbers of almost half of England’s FE colleges. Clearly, access to affordable education for young people is narrowing, making it especially difficult for young people from low-income backgrounds. No wonder student numbers are falling.

When students leave education, they find themselves in the job market. Here they face rejections without feedback, undesirable jobs and poor pay. Youth unemployment rates are at a similar level as in the early 2000’s, but this figure fails to account for the increase in atypical working, such as zero-hour contracts and self-employment. Competition is rife and a third of UK graduates are now in non-graduate jobs, leaving many to feel that their ambitions are on hold. Employment doesn’t necessarily bring joy, as low wages may mean they are unable to plan their financial future or cover basic living costs. Between 2007 and 2014, the average hourly earnings for under 30’s fell by 13%, the second worst pay squeeze after Greece.

It is easy to see why young people are unwilling to take risks, and lack confidence professionally. The results of the Index reflect this, as one in four respondents felt trapped in undesirable jobs, almost a third took whatever jobs they could get, and 67% felt they could be progressing more with their career. Young people are battling to gain work experience, land a job and actually get paid enough to support themselves.

Want to own your own home as a young person? Good luck. The Guardian, highlighting a report by the Resolution Foundation, stated that one in three millennials will never own a home. Low pay and a tough housing market mean that buying property is out of reach for a large proportion of young people. The IFS have found that for nearly 40% of young adults, the average house price in their area is at least ten times their annual income. The chances of a young person on a middle income owning a home have more than halved in the past two decades. Many of us may be renting into our 40s.

This is not to say there’s anything wrong with renting. In Germany and France renting is more popular as a stable housing option. Yet tighter rent controls are needed for this to happen in the UK. Landlords can increase rent and indeterminate contracts offer no guarantee of long-term tenancy. As a young person, and especially as a graduate, I have heard countless stories of nightmare landlords and houses in disrepair. Due to the nature of renting, many young people are pressured to look to home ownership as the only way to improve the quality of their housing and to gain some financial power. The reality is, many young people are living in the family home for longer or stuck jumping from one rented property to the next.

Check the news. Huge global and political issues now rest on the shoulders of the young. In the UK, according to the New Statesman, three-quarters of 18-24 year-olds voted to remain in the Brexit referendum. You can see why many young people in the UK feel burdened with the task of navigating a post-Brexit Britain, a future they never pictured for themselves. Brexit has sparked an identity crisis, and some are feeling ashamed to be British, seeing themselves more as global citizens. Throw austerity into the mix and the political situation is even more depressing. Outside of the UK, issues such as the rise in conservative, nationalist politics, and global warming will affect young people across the world. As a generation, it’s easy to feel worn out and hopeless in the face of such big problems.

Look up an article on young people or millennials and you are bound to see the same comments. Young people today are entitled snowflakes. So work-shy we are putting pressure on the NHS and choosing to indulge in avocado toast rather than save for a house. What patronising rubbish.

Personally, the young people in my life are hardworking and inspiring. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good moan, but dismissing the discussion of issues faced by young people as meaningless complaining does nothing to address current social problems. Throwing light on this topic does not take away from the struggles of previous generations or attempt to leave privilege unchecked. Yet, we are dealing with specific problems on a scale not experienced before. The traditional markers of adulthood are now proving difficult, even impossible, for young people to secure. The old rule-book is gone, and we are left to lead our own way into unfamiliar territory.

Despite all this, I have hope. Young people have been dealt a bad hand, but they are refusing to accept it. The #NeverAgain movement and the “youthquake” that was the British general election last year are just two examples of young people taking action and making their voices heard. Young people are driving industries forward, prioritising a good work-life balance, meaningful company values and relaxed working environments.

It is up to us to educate, organise and speak out, in order to create a more positive and inclusive future. British youth are already suffering from a mental health crisis. If we don’t force the government and society to address youth well-being now, then we will all have to deal with the consequences of a stressed, burned out generation.

Photo Credit: The Chubby Vegetarian. 


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