Worsening 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 when ill health comes directly into play that the benefits of good health become apparent.

The same is true for economies. After taking good health for a long time, many economies are realizing the huge economic and societal costs of poor health.

Until the 20th century, the writings of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century had a good description of people’s lives — short and brutal. The average lifespan was little more than 40 years and remained around these levels for centuries.

The 20th century was a turning point in life cycles and more. Medical, economic and social advances have enabled people in many countries to break free from their Hobbesian chains. In the United Kingdom, life expectancy has doubled in a short space of time, from 40 to over 80 years. This was an unprecedented step forward in human life.

This extension not only changed lives but economies. Due to a fall in infant mortality and increased longevity, the working population in the UK almost doubled between 1900 and 2000. And this increase in labor supply directly and significantly contributed to the UK’s growth potential, the first cylinder of economic growth. Improved health has also contributed to worker productivity in the workplace, for example through reduced absenteeism, the second cylinder of growth.

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In essence, the five-fold increase in living standards during the 20th century, unprecedented in human history, can be attributed to improved health outcomes. By driving the two cylinders of economic growth — labor market activity and productivity — good health was the hero of the 20th century’s growth story, if little notice.

Unmentioned, that is, before he went back. Because improvements in life expectancy this century have moderated in some countries, including the UK and the US. In some poorer places, and among some poorer families, life expectancies are now falling. Up to a third of poor people’s lives are now spent in poor health.

In the United Kingdom, the proportion of the working-age population reporting long-term illness has risen to one in six or around 7mn people, having stood at just over 5mn as recently as 2010. Although Covid-19 has Unfortunately, these increases preceded the situation. pandemic. They show a steady increase in cardiovascular and mental health problems, among other things.

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The rise in ill-health in the UK, particularly mental health problems, has been greatest among 16-24 year olds. One in eight now reports long-term illness. High and rising levels of economic and financial insecurity appear to be the main driver, after more than a decade of stagnant real wages. With real incomes set to decline sharply in the coming year, these pressures will worsen.

In addition to their impact on individuals, these adverse health trends now have macroeconomic consequences. They are contributing to the UK’s productivity balance, given strong evidence that poor physical and mental health in particular leads to lower levels of productivity in the workplace.

And health problems are adding to the UK’s shrinking workforce. This is over half a million below pre-Covid levels, and some surveys suggest that as many as two-thirds of these show poor health. In the UK, around 2.5mn people are now economically inactive due to ill health.

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Having been a strong tailwind for the past two centuries, health is now at the forefront of UK economic growth, perhaps for the first time since the Industrial Revolution. Both cylinders of growth seem now to be stalled in the case of productivity or behind in the case of activity, and health is a key player.

Economies are not the only ones feeling these pressures. There are also health care systems. In the UK, the NHS has seen hospital waiting lists almost double since 2010. Health service workers are now becoming as ill as those they treat, with one in five reporting high levels of depression.

This harmful feedback loop between economic and medical health, in the context of an increasingly fragile healthcare system, must somehow be broken and the resilience of the system strengthened.

While there are no quick fixes or one-size-fits-all solutions, support for preventative health measures — including greater investment in health education in schools, mental health issues in young people and measures to encourage improved diet — has grown significantly. all necessary conditions for recovery. grow.


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