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Growing pains

Young people have struggled during Covid-19. Missing school and being cut off from friends, together with anxiety over exams, essay deadlines or work, have left many suffering from poor mental health. The climate crisis appears to be deepening this effect.


Newsletter from 17 September 2021

Young people have endured a torrid 18 months. While no age group has been spared the pains of the pandemic, children, teenagers and young adults have been handed a particularly raw deal.

Classrooms have closed, leaving many kids isolated from their friends and behind on their schoolwork. The university experience, usually carrying the promise of being some of the best years of people’s lives, has been stripped down to a restricted imitation. And for those trying to launch their career and secure a first job, the future continues to look uncertain.

Pupils of all ages were back in schools and colleges last week. And with record numbers of new undergraduates anxiously awaiting the start of term, this week at the Observatory we revisited some of the economic challenges facing young people today.

We have also continued to explore the next big questions facing the UK economy, including climate change – a threat for which young people may once again be forced to bear the brunt.

I can't get no satisfaction

Last Tuesday, Ben Pimley (University of Bristol) explored how universities might improve student satisfaction amid the increasing use of online and blended learning. Ben highlights how first year undergraduates have struggled acutely during the pandemic, with 30% saying that they had a worse experience than expected, with the primary reason being a lack of face-to-face teaching.

According to the National Student Survey (run by the Office for Students), in 2021 course satisfaction fell to a record low of 75% – down from 83% the previous year. Similarly, data from the Student Academic Experience Survey shows that only 27% of students surveyed thought their course was good value for money this year. This is the lowest score ever recorded and down nearly half on 2012 levels (when £9,000 tuition fees were introduced). This is the first time in the survey’s history that more respondents have said they felt their course has been poor value then good value for money (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1: Value for money of your present course

SAES 2021

The data also highlight how different degree programmes have been affected to a variable extent. According to Ben’s analysis, journalism, geography and performing arts were some of the courses that experienced the largest falls in student satisfaction in terms of resources available (14-16 percentage points), while satisfaction in veterinary science, medicine and dentistry declined by ‘only’ six percentage points – perhaps reflecting the relatively high number of contact hours delivered during lockdown.

Ben concludes his piece by asking what might be done to address this issue. While restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19 were clearly necessary, and students had to adapt to life under lockdown like everyone else, Ben’s concern is that increased online learning is here to stay. The level to which this could continue to harm student satisfaction, mental health and academic attainment remains to be seen.

The other health crisis

Mental health among young people has been harmed substantially during Covid-19. Last week, Jonathan Norris (University of Strathclyde) revisited the question of how the pandemic has affected teenagers’ mental health. Jonathan finds that young people’s mental health has suffered more than older age groups during the crisis, and that support measures are needed urgently to avoid inequalities in education and employment widening as a result.

Changes in symptoms of depression among young people have not been uniform. Instead, Jonathan argues that the effects have been partly driven by the way the pandemic has disturbed other aspects of teenagers’ lives such as their situation at home or within their social groups.

Looking forward, he argues that without an effective policy intervention to alleviate both the economic shocks on vulnerable populations and the elevated mental health problems, many young people will be at greater risk of poor mental health in the future. As with physical conditions, there is no trade-off between wealth and mental health: poor mental wellbeing creates costs both for individuals and through long-term spillovers to the wider economy.

Climate concerns

Young people are very concerned about climate change. A survey by Bath University this week revealed that almost two thirds of 16-25 year olds felt ‘very worried’ or ‘extremely worried’ about climate issues. Three quarters of respondents said they felt the future was frightening, with over half (56%) believing humanity to be doomed.

The designers of the survey – which included 10,000 respondents from countries around the world – argue that chronic stress over climate change is increasing the risk of mental and physical problems among young people. If severe weather events such as floods, fires and heatwaves worsen, further mental health impacts will follow.

Aside from the mental health cost, extreme weather events have a substantial economic cost too. This week on the Observatory, Ilan Noy (Te Heranga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington) explored these effects.

The economic impact of extreme weather events is often measured in physical units – how many houses and offices are damaged by a hurricane or landslide, for example. But Ilan argues that sometimes the true extent of the damage is more difficult to measure – what about the loss of cultural assets, individual livelihoods or the environment itself?

By including reductions in economic activity, interruptions to supply chains (meso-economic impacts), and changes in prices or exchange rates (macroeconomic impacts), a more detailed picture of the damage caused by extreme weather can be constructed. Without this level of analysis, Ilan argues that economists are likely to underestimate the cost of climate change, and underestimate the urgency required for cost-effective mitigation policies as a result.

He also reminds us that climate change is not an ‘equal opportunity menace’. The impact on minority and low-income families has the potential to be much more severe. The cost of extreme weather, whether underestimated or not, is unlikely to affect everyone equally. As with Covid-19, extreme weather events and other effects caused by climate change could well deepen existing inequalities across age groups, wealth levels and international borders.

Observatory news

  • Next week, we will be focusing on health and social care. Keep an eye out for a range of pieces covering funding, possible reforms and the effect of the new levy on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Don’t forget to buy tickets for our conference in November – Talking Economics. Places are booking up fast.
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Author: Charlie Meyrick
Picture by Eric Ward on Unsplash
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