Many Unemployed Young Adults Less Healthy Than Employed People 50 and Older

Problem especially bad in high-income nations like the U.S.

By Elaina Loveland November 9, 2016
Many Unemployed Young Adults Less Healthy Than Employed People 50 and Older

​Young people tend to be in better physical health than older adults worldwide. However, a new Gallup poll reveals that many unemployed young people in high-income countries like the United States report faring worse physically than employed workers who are 50 and older.

The Gallup-Healthways Global Well-Being Index 2013-2015 found that in high-income economies, 26 percent of unemployed young people (ages 15-29) reported being less well physically than 24 percent of employed older adults (ages 50 and older).

The findings were based on interviews with 477,253 adults, ages 15 and older, conducted from 2013 to 2015 in 155 countries. Gallup-Healthways defined physical well-being as "having good health and enough energy to get things done daily." Answers that respondents could choose from were "thriving" (well-being that is strong and consistent), "struggling" (well-being that is moderate or inconsistent), and "suffering" (well-being that is low and inconsistent).

In the United States, unemployment had even more of a negative effect on the physical well-being of young people than it did globally: 23 percent of young people in the U.S. (ages 18-29) reported that they are thriving physically versus 31 percent of employed older workers (ages 50 and above).

Why is the physical well-being of unemployed youth reported to be worse than employed adults?

"We have to acknowledge that one potential reason is that unemployed people may be unemployed because of worse physical well-being to begin with, that is, they had a health condition that prevents them from working," said Brandon Busteed, executive director of education and workforce development at Gallup.

Busteed said there is still a lot to learn about the relationship between youth unemployment and physical well-being in the U.S. "What we know so far is that there is a relationship and that it's particularly a problem in the U.S. compared to other countries," he said. "One hypothesis is that being unemployed as a young person in a high-income economy is potentially devastating enough to someone's sense of purpose—their pride in self and their feelings of worth—that it has a depressing effect on their physical well-being."

Unemployment takes a toll on physical well-being across all age groups, but it is worse for educated young people.

Only 15 percent of young people who completed four years of college reported that their physical well-being was thriving, whereas more than a quarter of youth who had completed only elementary school or high school reported to be physically thriving.

"But when we look at various aspects of the data—it seems more likely that what we are looking at is the devastating consequence of a person making a huge investment in education and having that investment not pay off in the ways they expected by ending up unemployed," said Busteed. "How do you even explain to your friends and family when you have an advanced degree that you're out of work? The higher the investment one makes in trying to obtain a better job—and not getting one—may make the pain of not achieving that goal even worse."

The stigma of unemployment among young people is particularly grim in the United States compared with other high-income countries.

"There are other high-income countries where unemployed youth have poor physical well-being compared to employed older adults, but the U.S. is among the worst for unemployed youth," said Busteed. "If we step back and think about the massive investments many youth and their families are putting into education, the increasing cost of college—largely unique to the U.S.—and the societal expectations to be successful—it puts a lot of pressure on youth. If they end up unemployed, it makes that outcome feel even worse."

"It's possible that having an unemployed peer group reduces the stigma of unemployment and therefore makes it easier to handle," said Mona Mourshed, the global executive director of McKinsey's Social Initiative Generation program, which assists unemployed young people (ages 18-29) in 24 cities in the United States, Spain, Mexico, India and Kenya.  

Mourshed and Busteed wrote an analysis of the Gallup-Healthways data for the Harvard Business Review in which they noted that "sharing the burden with a peer group lessens the health effects of unemployment."

Countries with higher rates of youth unemployment lead to the availability of such a peer group. In Spain, for example, "the physical well-being of unemployed Spanish youth is higher than that of unemployed youth in the U.S."

In the United States, many young people also live on their own, which is different than in other countries and may have an impact on why unemployment affects physical well-being.

"Young people in the U.S. also often have less of an immediate support group," said Mourshed. "For example, in the U.S., 26 percent of Generation program students are living by themselves as the only adults in their household, while in India less than 1 percent of students live by themselves—and 45 percent have six or more people in their household!"

Connie Wanberg, professor and Industrial Relations Faculty Excellence Chair at the Center for Human Resources and Labor Studies at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, is conducting a study comparing unemployment in the United States, the Netherlands and Germany. "We find that individuals in the U.S. perceive much more pressure to find a job more quickly due to shorter unemployment insurance benefit duration," said Wanberg. "Many other wealthy countries have better safety nets."

That unemployment was connected to lower levels of well-being among young adults, especially in the United States, indicates a need for improvement on a large scale.

Busteed noted that there is a lack of internships or other educational opportunities to connect learning to work at the high school or the college level in the United States. "They need more work experience as part of school—and right now we are failing on those kinds of indicators in the U.S.," said Busteed. "Less than a third of all college graduates say they had an internship or job where they applied what they were learning in class. We should start measuring employers on how many internships, co-ops, apprenticeships [and] job shadows they offer for students. And we should create incentives—and reduce red tape—to help them do this at a much larger scale."

Mourshed said that "programs that train young people in the skills needed for employment and that place them in jobs are a critical part of the solution" to youth unemployment in the U.S. and elsewhere.

"When young people are employed, there are lots of positive impacts: improved health outcomes but also increased civic engagement, financial independence [and] family stability," she said. "For example, Generation graduates are more likely to be thriving [physically] than non-Generation peers."

The Generations program, with research partner Gallup, plans to track outcomes for 15 years.

"Our early results are very promising," said Mourshed. "We've achieved a 91 percent job placement rate [and] 87 percent continue to be employed three months out, 98 percent of our 400-plus employer partners would hire our graduates again, and our graduates earn two to six times more after Generation than before."Elaina Loveland is a freelance writer based in Natick, Mass.

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