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 only when ill health strikes that the benefits of good health become truly apparent.

The same goes for economies. Having long taken good health for granted, many economies are now waking up to the massive economic and societal costs of poor health.

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Until the 20th century, people’s lives were well described by the writings of the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes – short and brutal. The average life expectancy was just over 40 years and has remained around these levels for centuries.

The twentieth century marked an inflection point in ages and many other things. Medical, economic and social progress has enabled people in many countries to break free from their Hobbesian chains. In the UK, average longevity has doubled in the short span of the century, from 40 to over 80 years. This was an unprecedented leap forward in human life.

This prolongation has not only transformed people’s lives, it has transformed economies. The decline in infant mortality and the rise in longevity caused the working population of the United Kingdom to nearly double between 1900 and 2000. This rise in labor supply added directly and substantially to the growth potential of the United Kingdom, which is the first cylinder of economic growth. Improved health has also boosted worker productivity in the workplace, for example due to reduced absenteeism, the second growth cylinder.

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The fivefold rise in living standards during the twentieth century, unprecedented in human history, can be attributed to improved health outcomes. By setting off the twin cylinders of economic growth—labor market activity and productivity—good health has been the hero, if largely unknown, of the twentieth century’s growth story.

Unknown, i.e., before heading in the opposite direction. Because improvements in life expectancy in this century have leveled off in a number of countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States. In some poorer places, and among some poorer families, life expectancy is now falling. Up to a third of the lives of the poor now live in poor health.

In the UK, the proportion of the working-age population reporting long-term illness has risen to one in six or about 7 million people, from just over 5 million as recently as 2010. While Covid-19 To make matters worse, these spikes predate a pandemic. They reflect a steady increase in, among other things, cardiovascular and mental health problems.

The rise in poor health in the UK has been fastest among people aged 16-24, particularly with mental health problems. One in eight people now reports a long-term illness. High and growing levels of economic and financial insecurity seem to have been the main driver, after more than a decade of stalled real wages. And with real incomes expected to contract sharply next year, these pressures will only get worse.

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In addition to their impact on individuals, these negative health trends now have macroeconomic consequences. They contribute to a flatline of productivity in the UK, given strong evidence that poor physical and mental health in particular leads to lower levels of productivity in the workplace.

Health problems are now contributing to a shrinking workforce in the UK. That’s more than half a million lower than pre-Covid levels, with some surveys suggesting that up to two-thirds of this reflects poor health. In the UK, there are now around 2.5 million people who are economically inactive due to ill health.

Having been a strong tailwind for two centuries, health is now a powerful headwind to UK economic growth, perhaps for the first time since the Industrial Revolution. My twin growth cylinders now seem to be off in the productivity case or in reverse in the activity case, where health is a major contributor.

It is not just economies that are feeling these pressures. health care systems, too. In the UK, the NHS has seen hospital waiting lists nearly double since 2010. NHS workers are now as sick as those they treat, with one in five reporting high levels of depression.

This negative feedback loop between economic and medical health, against the backdrop of an increasingly fragile healthcare system, needs to be broken down somehow and the system’s resilience strengthened.

Although there are no quick fixes and no one-on-one solutions, a more pronounced skew of support toward preventive health measures – including greater investment in health education in schools, youth mental health problems and measures encouraging better diet – provides All necessary conditions to restore normal. growth.


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