Young people. Do they have the mix for a healthy future?

Liz Cairncross

17 May 2018

Today's blog is by Liz Cairncross who participated in the My Healthy Future workshop on adolescent health. Liz is a Research Manager at the Health Foundation, where she is helping to develop research on health linked to the Foundation's Healthy Lives Strategy

A flourishing and prosperous society depends on healthy, educated and resilient young people with the life skills to become thriving adults. The factors that shape long-term health and wellbeing exert their influence from an early stage. Ensuring a thriving adult population in the future will involve providing the right support and conditions for young people to flourish in the here and now.

The greatest influences on our health and wellbeing are the factors such as our education and employment opportunities; our housing; our social networks; where we live and the extent it facilitates exercise, a good diet and social connection. These are often known as the social determinants of health. The influence of social determinants on long-term health outcomes is largely accepted and understood by those working in health and social policy. However, the implications of this are less well understood by decision-makers across other sectors and the wider public. The social determinants approach to health emphasises the importance of creating the conditions that promote good long-term health outcomes across the life course, acting early in life to increase people’s ability to build the foundations they need to thrive. 

For young people to have a healthy future, they require these core ingredients: a place to call home, a secure and rewarding job, and supportive relationships with their friends, family and community.

While much has been done to improve the understanding of the support needed during the early years, less is known about what is needed during teenage years and early adulthood to enable young people to have a healthy future. In the words of Duncan Selbie from Public Health England, health is more than health care, and what matters is ‘having a home, a job and a friend’. For young people to have a healthy future, they require these core ingredients: a place to call home, a secure and rewarding job, and supportive relationships with their friends, family and community.

The context in which today’s young people are reaching adulthood is a very different one from previous generations. For example, housing and labour markets have changed, while the quality of work and relationships are affected by new technologies. We know little about what this will mean for the future health of today’s young people. At the Health Foundation, we are interested to know how these changes in the wider context and experiences of young people have affected them between the ages of 12 and 24 and as they move into adulthood; and how this is likely to affect their future health prospects. 

In 2017, we launched our inquiry to understand the future health prospects of young people: Young people. Do they have the mix for a healthy future? Our inquiry aims to discover: do young people currently have this mix of core ingredients? What is needed to create these ingredients? What issues do they face as they move into adulthood? What does this mean for their future health and society more generally?

An early stage of the inquiry involved engaging with young people in their early 20’s to hear their views about what they see as the key assets that have contributed to their current situation. Building on this, we are funding mainly quantitative research to find out how these assets are accumulated and distributed between the ages of 12 and 24, and what this can tell us about what is needed for a healthy life, and the future health outcomes of young people. In addition, we are undertaking a series of site visits to understand the local factors that can mitigate, mediate or exacerbate young people’s ability to build the foundations for a healthy life; and a series of roundtables across the UK to explore the policy and practice changes required to promote action to improve young people’s future health prospects. 

The inquiry aims to set out a roadmap for cross sector action to ensure that the experience of young people today leads to a thriving population tomorrow. It will have implications for policy and decision makers across the UK and we are developing an active plan to communicate the findings from the inquiry.

The two projects will provide valuable contributions to current knowledge about the future health prospects of young people and the implications for health and other policy areas.

I think the Health Foundation approach provides an interesting complement to PHG’s My Healthy Future’s project. Seeing how science and technology will impact on the future health prospects of young people will be impossible without an understanding of the context in which it is introduced, and its relationship to the wider determinants that affect health and access to health care. The two projects will provide valuable contributions to current knowledge about the future health prospects of young people and the implications for health and other policy areas.

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