A paper I have recently come across (and tweeted a link to) has showed us that mental health in their early 40s is quite a bit worse among members of the 1970 British Birth Cohort than it was at the same age in the 1958 birth cohort. This was a very welcome analysis. Many years ago, in response to a request from the old Health Education Authority and the Department of Employment (now DWP) our ESRC Resilience Network team set about a similar task in a rather rushed manner and I always wondered about the results.
The DWP was very worried about the large & increasing numbers of young-ish working age people who were on long term sickness benefits because of mental health issues. At a meeting we had agreed this might happen in (at least) 2 ways: 1. young people were arriving at school leaving and labour market entry with a heavier burden of mental health problems in 1986 (when 1970 cohort would be 16) than they did in the mid 1970s; 2. something was different in the lives of early labour market entrants .
I personally was quite sure that changes for the worse in childhood, such as higher levels of divorce and single parenthood, would have produced a less mentally fit cohort of labour market entrants. How wrong I was! To our surprise the data gave absolutely no sign of this. So we went on, in an even greater rush, to have a quick look (using different data from the BHPS youth boost survey) to look for a mismatch between job aspirations before age 16 and destinations at the time when adult mental health was measured. I was sorry to have too little time to go further into this and arguably we should have when we started work as the ESRC International Centre for Life Course Studies (ICLS). But at the time we wrote the research application for ICLS, 2006-7, funders' priorities had shifted away from unemployment & non-employment (don't laugh).
In thsi paper "Psychological distress in mid-life: evidence from the 1958 and 1970 British birth cohorts" Psychological Medicine Volume 47, Issue 2January 2017 , pp. 291-30, Ploubidis et al. take great care to make sure their measures of adult distress are truly comparable between the 2 cohorts. They also did a far more sophisticated analysis, by considering a lot more mediating and confounding factors than we did. But their analysis did not indicate that childhood factors such as parental divorce, maaternal employment or childhood behavioural maladjustment accounted to any large extent for the higher distress scores in the later cohort. They comment:
The 1958 cohort are part of the ‘Lucky Generation’ of post-war baby boomers, who experienced high absolute levels of social mobility, and lower levels of social inequality, whereas the 1970 cohort are part of ‘Generation X’, who have experienced greater uncertainty and insecurity over the whole of their adult lives and a more individualistic ideological climate (Sullivan et al., 2015). If these generational changes lie behind the increase in psychological distress, then we would predict that future generations will be worse off still if such trends were to continueThis is a sobering conclusion. Even more so when one considers that the study participants who suffered the worst from mental distress are likely to be found among people "sanctioned" by today's workfare policies.
SULLIVAN, A., BROWN, M. & BANN, D. 2015. Guest Editorial: Generation X enters
middle age. Longitudinal and Life Course Studies, 6, 120-130.
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