‘People tell me they’re not ready to work’: how long-term sickness blighted a town | Economics

On a Wednesday night in Hastings, a handful of under-18s gather in the back of a former newspaper building for a weekly Dungeons and Dragons night. Around the table, a teenager peers from behind a floppy fringe, telling the other players of a monster with jaws wide enough to swallow a man whole. Behind him, two boys are playing pool. For the moment, there’s not an iPhone in sight.

Sidney Ewing, the youth worker overseeing the programme, says the majority of young people who come to the centre feel uncertain about their future. Their most popular night is for 16-to-18s, she says, a generation who lost two critical years of their education to Covid, with only screens for school and socialising. “A lot of them say they aren’t ready to go to university or start work because of their mental health,” she says. “You hear that a lot: ‘I need to sort myself out first.’”

Britain is suffering from an epidemic of people too ill to work. Economic inactivity due to ill health has been increasing for five years in the longest sustained rise since the 1990s, and now stands at a record high of 2.8 million. Addressing this will be one of the biggest challenges for the next government and a central economic question for parties on the election campaign trail.

There are now 700,000 more people unable to work through illness than before Covid. Nine-tenths of that rise can be accounted for by two groups: the oldest in the labour market, and the very young.

Alex Giles got a job funded by the government’s post-Covid Kickstart programme at OBX, Hastings’s digital arts hub. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

In Hastings, one in 10 young people leave school with no plans for higher education or work – almost twice the English average. The town has the joint highest number of people aged 16 to 34 who say they are in bad health, according to the 2021 census. In terms of opportunities for young people, Hastings has more in common with Blackpool than regional neighbours such as Brighton or Tunbridge Wells.

“The centre of Hastings has some of the highest levels of crime in the county, the local schools are constantly changing, and the biggest employer is the care industry. It forms this perfect storm for young people,” says Matt Davey, the founder of a local community interest company called Head on Board, which uses skateboarding as a way in to talking about mental health and suicide.

In 2019, East Sussex county council shut 13 youth clubs and 14 children’s centres, a pattern that has been repeated across the country. Local authorities, under pressure from austerity, slashed youth provision funding in England from more than £1bn to £408.5m between 2011 and 2021.

Davey was a council youth worker in Hastings for more than a decade, and saw firsthand the impact of the cuts. Once a young person starts to feel isolated, it can create a vicious cycle, he says: “There are common factors that keep us well and healthy: being connected to people, having a purpose. There is definitely a link between doing something, be that volunteering, part-time employment or training, and good mental health.”

Like many seaside towns, Hastings suffers from a lack of high-quality jobs. A quarter of residents are employed in health and social care. Much of the work in hospitality is seasonal and insecure. But a growing number of tech enterprises are creating new opportunities.

The Hastings youth club, helped by a two-year grant from the Youth Investment Fund to create permanent spaces for young people, is currently run from the offices of OBX, a digital arts hub that is part of Hastings Commons – an ecosystem of community-led organisations working together to renovate derelict buildings in the town centre. Around the board games and the pool table are banks of computers, a digital scanner and a 3D printer.

A tiny gecko made of chocolate has been freshly 3D-printed as part of an experiment by Alex Giles. He was two years into a diploma in games development at college when the pandemic hit. With no computer at home, Giles was forced to abandon his studies. For the next two years he was on universal credit, struggling to find work, save for a job packing boxes in a local warehouse one Christmas.

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Hastings Old Town: much of the work in the seaside town’s hospitality industry is insecure. Photograph: Fraser Gray/Rex Shutterstock

Then he was offered a job at Hastings Commons under the government’s post-Covid Kickstart scheme, which provided funds to create employment for 16- to 24-year-olds on universal credit who were at risk of long-term unemployment. “Kickstart put me back on track,” Giles says. “Before that, I was in a state of uncertainty. I wanted to find employment but I didn’t know where to start.”

At 22, Giles is now employed by OBX and experimenting with printed food for a project exploring food poverty. He supports others who come through the building on work experience or for workshops. Many of them say they would like his job. Meanwhile, Hastings Commons has created its own version of Kickstart to replace the axed government scheme.

In the 1990s, the long-term impact of job losses after rapid deindustrialisation was not persistent unemployment, but instead higher rates of economic inactivity due to long-term sickness, according to the Resolution Foundation. The thinktank says the long-term sick are now disproportionately concentrated in post-industrial and coastal areas of the country as the “hidden unemployed”, challenging the narrative of government statistics that the country is operating at close to full employment.

Among working-age adults in England and Wales, new claims for the personal independence payment (Pip) have increased by two-thirds (68%) between early 2020 and early 2024. In Hastings, 6,728 people are claiming Pip for an illness, disability or mental health condition, up 52% since January 2020. The figures will be a source of alarm for politicians. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, spending on disability benefits is set to rise by 49% in nominal terms between 2023-24 and 2028-29.

In the Hastings Commons boardroom, social media assistant Sharon Rhodes is remembering the success of a recent campaign. “I made a local historian go viral on TikTok!” she says. With her cropped grey hair and denim jacket, Rhodes is a youthful 50, putting her in the second category –older working-age adults increasingly out of work because of illness.

She was diagnosed with rapid-cycle bipolar disorder and PTSD more than 20 years ago and spent 10 years out of work before she found the courage to apply for the government’s access to work scheme. This pays for a designated worker to make sure she is eating and sleeping – basic activities that still sometimes feel insurmountable.

Sharon Rhodes says her benefits payments help her to stay in her job, rather than discouraging her from finding work. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

Alongside flexible hours, Hastings Commons provides staff training in mental health awareness. Crucially, Rhodes’s 10 hours of work do not interfere with benefits; she receives employment and support allowance alongside income support. But she says many people in Hastings are terrified to work for fear that they might lose their benefits. That culture of fear could get worse.

In his autumn statement last November, Jeremy Hunt announced changes to disability benefits to make it tougher for some people with poor mobility or mental health issues to receive additional support. That could make it harder, not easier, for some people to work. Labour has promised to improve mental health services and reduce NHS waiting lists if it gets into power. A swing of 3.4%, or 3,500 votes, is all it would take to topple the current Conservative MP in Hastings and Rye, Sally-Ann Hart.

Rhodes argues she is able to work because of her benefits payments, not despite them – and because she found the right job. “I want to show the country you can work with such a bad diagnosis if you find the right employer,” she says.

This article was amended on 26 May 2024 because a picture caption on an earlier version said it showed Hastings “town centre” whereas it showed a street in Hastings Old Town.

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