Deteriorating health is an economic headwind

The writer is chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts

As individuals, we often take our health for granted. It is only when ill health strikes that the benefits of good health really become apparent.

The same is true of economies. For a long time taking good health for granted, many economies are now becoming aware of the serious economic and social costs of ill health.

Until the 20th century, the life of the people was well described by the writings of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century – short and cruel. Average lifespan was a little over 40 years and remained around these levels for several centuries.

The 20th century marked an inflection point in life span and much more. Medical, economic and social progress enabled people in many countries to break free from their Hobbesian chains. In Britain, the average longevity went from 40 to over 80 years in the short span of a century. This was an unprecedented leap in human life span.

This tally changed not only lives but economies. A decline in infant mortality and an increase in longevity meant that the working age population in the UK almost doubled between 1900 and 2000. And this increase in labor supply added directly and significantly to the growth potential of the UK, the first cylinder of economic growth. Better health also increased the productivity of workers in the workplace, for example by reducing absenteeism, another cylinder of growth.

The fivefold increase in living standards during the 20th century, unprecedented in human history, is no small measure for improved health outcomes. By firing the twin cylinders of economic growth – labor market activity and productivity – good health was the protagonist of the 20th-century growth saga, if largely unheralded.

Unheralded, that is, before it is reversed. Because improvements in life expectancy have become common in many countries this century, including the UK and the US. Life expectancy is now falling in some poorer areas and in some poorer families. One third of poor people’s lives are now spent in poor health.

In the UK, the proportion of the working-age population who are chronically ill has risen to one in six, or around 7 million people, from more than 5 million as recently as 2010. Epidemic. They reflect a steady rise in heart and mental health problems, among other things.

The rise in poor health in the UK has been fastest among 16-24 year olds, particularly mental health problems. One in eight now report long-term illness. After more than a decade of stagnant real wages, high and rising levels of economic and financial insecurity appear to be a key driver. With real income contracting sharply in the coming year, these pressures will get worse.

As well as their effects on individuals, these adverse health trends are now having widespread economic consequences. They are contributing to lower UK productivity, given the growing evidence that poor physical and especially mental health results in lower levels of workplace productivity.

And health problems are now contributing to the shrinking UK workforce. That’s more than half a million above pre-Covid levels, with some surveys showing two-thirds of them in poor health. Around 2.5 million people in the UK are now financially inactive due to poor health.

After being a strong headwind for two centuries, health is now a strong headwind for Britain’s economic growth, perhaps for the first time since the Industrial Revolution. The twin cylinders of growth now appear to have stalled in terms of productivity or opposites in terms of activity, with health being a major contributor.

It is not just economies that are feeling these pressures. There are also healthcare systems. In the UK, the NHS has seen hospital waiting lists almost double since 2010. Healthcare workers are now getting sicker than they are treating, with one in five people reporting high levels of depression.

Against the backdrop of an increasingly fragile healthcare system, this adverse feedback loop between economic and medical health needs to be broken in some way and the resilience of the system strengthened.

While there are neither quick fixes nor the only solution, there is a very sharp skew of support towards preventive health measures – more heavily investing in health education in schools, mental health problems in youth and reinstating measures that encourage better diets. All the necessary conditions are there. growth.

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