YOUNG PEOPLE have returned to work rapidly, with unemployment now lower than pre-pandemic levels, but problems persist, with one-in-three 18-34-year-olds returning to atypical, often insecure work.

The number of economically inactive young men has increased by almost 50,000 since last spring, according to new research published by the Resolution Foundation.

Leaving lockdown, which includes findings from an online YouGov survey of 6,100 adults, examines the recent experience of young people’s employment, their outlook in the post-pandemic labour market and how this might affect their mental health.

The reports notes that the huge success of the furlough scheme kept a lid on youth unemployment, but could not prevent young people experiencing long periods of worklessness during the pandemic, putting them at risk of blighted future employment and pay prospects and of ongoing mental health problems.

One-in three 18-24-year-olds who were in work in February 2020 have experienced at least three months of worklessness, along with almost one-in-five (19 per cent) 25-34-year-olds.

The swift return of many young people to the workplace following the lifting of lockdown restrictions last year is something to celebrate, the Foundation says. By October 2021, three in four (76 per cent) young people who were in work before the pandemic but workless during the winter lockdown had returned to work. As a result, the unemployment rate for 18-24-year-olds in the three months to November fell to 9.8 per cent – below its pre-pandemic rate of 10.5 per cent.

However, despite this welcome rapid return, Leaving lockdown warns that young people are still facing significant challenges in the workplace. Young ‘returners’ – who were employed prior to the pandemic, experienced worklessness in the last lockdown, and have since returned to work – are now more likely than those who stayed in work throughout the pandemic to be on a temporary contract, a zero hours contract, doing agency work, or working variable hours.

Of those surveyed, 33 per cent of ‘returners’ were now employed in these atypical work types, compared to just 12 per cent of young people who were in work during both periods of the pandemic.

Younger ‘returners’ to the workplace were also more likely than those who remained employed during the winter of 2021 to be looking for new or additional jobs, suggesting some level of dissatisfaction with their current working lives.

One-in-four (25 per cent) returners reported looking for a new job, compared to 19 per cent of those were in work during both periods.

The research adds that while unemployment has not increased during the pandemic, the number of 18-24-year-olds who are economically inactive and not in full-time study (NEETs) has risen, especially among young men, where it has increased by 47,000 compared to spring 2021.

Both recent worklessness and poor-quality work are also associated with poor mental health, the report author says.

In October 2021, among young people who were in work before the pandemic, almost two-thirds (64 per cent) of those who had been workless in the last three months reported a common mental health disorder, compared to 51 per cent of young people overall. Among those who were in work before the pandemic, 69 per cent were looking for a new job, and 70 per cent of those who were looking for an additional job, also reported a mental health disorder at this time.

The rise in young people who are economically inactive or in insecure work, combined with the large numbers of young people who have suffered extended worklessness in recent years, means that policymakers must now focus on tacking insecure work, and ensuring that young people have access to good quality jobs, the Foundation says.

Louise Murphy, Economist at the Resolution Foundation, said: “Young people were hit hardest by the economic impact of the pandemic, but have bounced back with a swift return to work, thanks in large part to the success of the furlough scheme. But policymakers and employers must not become complacent – problems persist for young people who are at risk of insecure work and economic inactivity.

“One-in-three young people who experienced worklessness during the last lockdown have returned to atypical contracts, which often means insecure work. The fact that they are more likely to be looking for new or additional work suggests higher dissatisfaction with their current jobs. And while unemployment has fallen, the number of young people dropping out of education and the labour market altogether has risen – especially young men.

“A return to the workplace, on its own, is not enough. Ensuring that young people have the confidence and knowledge to find and apply for work, and access to good quality jobs and sufficient hours, must be a priority for employers and policymakers in the months and years to come.”

* Read Leaving Lockdown here.

* Source: Resolution Foundation