Generation Sicknote: If Gen Z are struggling to work then that’s a reflection of the lack of support available to them

29 February 2024, 21:38 | Updated: 29 February 2024, 22:29

We should be asking why Gen Z are struggling not reprimanding them for it, Natasha Devon argues.
We should be asking why Gen Z are struggling not reprimanding them for it, Natasha Devon argues. Picture: Alamy
Natasha Devon MBE

By Natasha Devon MBE

‘Generation Sicknote!’ screeched the Daily Mail headline. ‘Young people are increasingly blaming their mental health for being out of work... but critics question if it's all just 'snowflakery'.

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They go on to cite statistics showing the number of 18-24 year olds who are economically inactive due to ill health has risen from 93,000 to 190,000 in the past decade.

Not to be outdone when there’s an opportunity to punch down/sow artificial division, the Telegraph swiftly followed up with two opinion pieces entitled ‘I feel sorry for Generation Sicknote: They’re missing out of the benefits work can offer’ and ‘How a Generation Forgot to be Resilient’.

Given they are two of the more, shall we say, government-adjacent media outlets, the agenda is clear: If scapegoating trans people, Muslims or refugees fails to distract from the impact of a decade-and-a-half of austerity measures, cronyism and incompetence, then readerships might just be persuaded that it’s young people who are responsible for the country’s economic decline.

The problem is that now that unconscious belief has been planted, older generations will doubtless find ‘evidence’ for it.

Gen Z are not only statistically more likely to experience mental ill health (for a number of reasons, not least the point in their development at which the pandemic hit) they are also more likely to be honest about it.

As countless studies will attest, for a long time the unspoken protocol was to cite a bad back, migraine or stomach bug to explain absences from work which were mental-health related.

Indeed, there is increasing evidence to show that these common physical symptoms can actually be a result of ignoring mental health concerns.

For the Baby Boomer generation, there is a measurable point of vulnerability for suicide around retirement age, particularly for men. A professional lifetime of squashing down psychological distress suddenly comes to the fore when routine changes.

Furthermore, around a third of Gen Z don’t drink alcohol, whereas older generations are more likely to use it to self-medicate. So much for that ‘stiff upper lip’, eh?

If anything, Gen Z should be applauded for having the emotional literacy to identify anxiety and low mood. If their mental health issues leave them unable to work, this is a reflection of the lack of support available to them.

After all, the psychologist’s definition of ‘resilience’ is ‘the number of meaningful connections a person has in their life’. It’s not a character trait one can choose to switch on and off at a whim.

Whilst Gen Z might be recognising the importance of their mental health and seeking help, they’re unlikely to find it.

NHS Trusts have reported an average drop in funding for mental health services of around 15% since 2010, even as demand soars. A two-year wait for NHS psychological support is not uncommon. Meanwhile, businesses are making cuts because of the Rish-cession, meaning more pressured work environments.

A third of Gen Z can’t afford to move out of their parents’ house, with the rest likely to live in insecure housing or facing prohibitively long and expensive commutes, owing to the lack of affordable housing close to the highest number of job vacancies (city centres).

I don’t think Gen Z’s lack of motivation is purely down to the breaking of the social contract – i.e. the fact that wages haven’t kept up with inflation and a normal job no longer buys a normal life. But if it was, who could blame them?

Ultimately, columnists would do well to ask themselves what their response would be if the evidence showed the number of young people unable to work because of a broken leg had doubled in the past ten years. You’d ask 1. Why is this happening? And 2. What can we do to heal them?

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