Why are young people so unhappy?

The young in the UK, the US and some European countries, according to the World Happiness Report, are less happy today than they were just a few years ago. While some blame social media and smartphone use, there are deeper causes at play, according to Ben O’Loughlin and James Sloam from Royal Holloway, University of London.

Psychotherapist working with young man in office,

 

The new World Happiness Report based on surveys in 140 countries indicates young people are getting happier around the world but steadily less happy in North America and Europe.

The UK ranks 32nd out of the 140 countries for happiness among the under 30s, but 20thamong the over 60s. The report’s authors write, “Norway, Sweden, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Spain are countries where the old are now significantly happier than the young, while Portugal and Greece show the reverse pattern”. Comparing the previous survey of 2006-10 with that of 2021-23, the UK ranks 92nd on evidence of improving happiness among young people. The specific Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey of 15 year-olds showed that their happiness in England fell drastically from 2017-18 until 2022, whereas it had been rising from 2013 up until 2017-18. Something tipped at that point.

The causes of youth unhappiness

The Guardian recently interviewed the US surgeon general, Dr Vivek Murthy, who blamed social media as an unsafe platform going largely unregulated. This was causing mental distress among young people. Our research with young people from disadvantaged and traditionally marginalised groups in London for the last five years shows a more complicated picture, and no one easy target of blame. We highlight three major themes contributing to this downward trend in young people’s happiness: the aftereffects of the Global Financial Crises of 2007-2008, coupled with the Covid pandemic; the preferential treatment by governments of older people; a sense of entrapments and powerlessness due to a perceived lack of opportunities. These are all the result of policy choices that can be reversed, given the political will.

First, what some now call a “polycrisis” in world politics has seen young people grow up since the 2007-08 Global Financial Crises in austerity, cuts to public services, amplified by Covid and disruption to educationThey know of this. Despite that broader devastating context, in our research in London young people from less well-off backgrounds found it difficult to talk about any political issue beyond their local milieu. Asked about climate change, they said terms like “green economy” were unexplained and meaningless. For most, climate meant their local park. One term that did resonate was “circular economy”, but they did not know how to grow food for their families or have access to space to try growing it. They could not discuss economic life in terms of a national economy, let alone global economic patterns. The focus of attention was what they immediately experienced in daily life. This produced an emotional toll because they did not know how to act effectively in that space. They expressed a feeling that they lacked something older generations possessed and could not see how this would change. Older people could open bank accounts, pay taxes, save for a home, whilst young Londoners said they lacked these basic opportunities.

Second, public policy in England and the UK has become particularly oriented towards older generations. In the 2010-2011 aftermath of the financial crisis, the Coalition Government directly removed benefits from young people, for instance abolishing the Education Maintenance Allowance that supported young people from low-income backgrounds to complete post-16 education, whilst improving or maintaining benefits for older age groups irrespective of income, notably the introduction of a triple lock on state pensions. Over the next ten years, local authority spending on youth services in England was cut by more than 70 percent in real terms, from £1.2 billion to around £400 million. This led to the closure of more than half of the youth centres in the country – key support structures that scaffold youth transitions to adulthood for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. In London, our research has revealed that the top issues for young Londoners are housing, mental health and crime. The Covid-19 pandemic generated a dramatic downward spiral for young people from 2020 onwards – young people from disadvantaged backgrounds being trapped in cramped accommodation, often without functioning WiFi to access education, and without adequate services to support their deteriorating mental health.  High inflation and the cost-of-living crisis since 2022 have placed further pressure on precarious lives. In this context, it is not surprising that young people’s happiness has suffered.

Third, young people tell us they have experienced “cycles” of entrapment because of lack of opportunity in that context. Disruptive or even poor schooling lowers expectations of a good job, increasing incentive to use crime to build an income, making prison more likely, and so a criminal record which makes any paid job unlikely. These cycles produce feelings of powerlessness and frustration. Many reported not knowing how to escape or break out of these cycles, because they cannot get useful guidance from schools that are entirely exam-outcome-oriented or from parents who may be in prison or unemployed so, in their own way, similarly powerless. These are cycles of insecurity in which many young people feel insecurities compound, and that compounding stretches the sense of powerlessness over months and even years.

Policy proposals to reverse the unhappiness trend

The obvious question for public policy is: how can we turn these vicious cycles into virtuous circles? Clearly there are structural equalities that should be addressed at a grant level. For example, the Labour Party’s recent commitment to the creation of “youth hubs” – requires serious financial investment – investment that will cost money in the very short term, but can bring huge returns of happy and productive citizens in the medium-to-long-term.

These are political choices – UK governments have been keen to sign up to physical infrastructure projects where the results are less certain. HS2 is estimated to be costing £2 billion per year, five times the local authority youth services budget. Beyond public investment, there are emerging models of youth empowerment that illuminate pathways to a more inclusive and effective public policy. The Mayor of London’s Peer Outreach Team, for example, has developed an innovate model where young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are provided with support and space, to develop their own personal and democratic skills, to reach out to their peers, and to engage with policy-makers to shape public policy. Both of these kinds of pathways can contribute to rebuilding happiness in our young people and reverse the current alarming trend.

*Ben O’Loughlin is Professor of International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is Director of the New Political Communication Unit, which was launched in 2007. James Sloam is professor of politics at Royal Holloway University, where he was co-director of the Centre for European Politics from 2007 to 2017. He is a founding convenor of the UK Political Studies Association (PSA) specialist group on young people’s politics. This article was first published on the LSE Blog here and gives the views of the authors, and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.  



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