The health of its young people is one of the biggest assets a country holds, determining its future wellbeing, costs and productivity. It forms the basis for the health of democracy, the economy and shapes the social fabric. For governments across the world, the stewardship of this asset needs to be a priority — any erosion is a major risk.

The gains made in young people’s health over the last few decades in the UK, specifically from the investment in early years, was the starting point for the Health Foundation’s Young people’s future health inquiry.

The inquiry’s first phase of research and engagement — described in our first report Listening to our future — found that while these gains are significant, other factors and experiences pose risks to young people’s safe and healthy transition to adulthood.

Many of these experiences are shaped by the places young people grow up: economy and opportunities, community and the availability of public services affect their life chances.

Over the past six months, we’ve visited five very different places and engaged with both young people and the people responsible for local systems and services to gain an understanding of growing up in the UK in the 2010s. Place may not be an absolute determinant of outcomes, but it still profoundly shapes experience, expectation and opportunity, and has implications for long-term health and wellbeing.

What we found tells a story of young people forging their own paths in creative and mutually supportive ways. But it also tells a much less comfortable story — young people profoundly affected by the nature of their local economy, housing and labour markets, and by the strength of the social fabric around them. It describes a sense of insecurity and lack of confidence, and shows that many of the protective factors that are so important for future health are missing. In many cases, this weakens resilience to inevitable shocks and setbacks, as well as jeopardising their long-term health.

The young people we met were proud of their home towns and strongly identified with them. Yet, they were all too aware that their life chances were determined by both the community and economy of these places.

That should be a major concern for us all. We should worry as if our future depends upon it. Because it does.

Julia Unwin — Strategic adviser to the Young people’s future health inquiry

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