June 1, 2021
Background: A small literature shows that youth unemployment is associated with poorer mental health later in life. Methods: Four empirical studies addressed gaps in the literature. Study 1 used Next Steps to estimate the association between youth unemployment and GHQ-12 scores at age 25. Specification curve analysis and a negative control outcome design were used to explore the robustness of the association to different modelling assumptions and to test whether the association could be easily explained by confounding. Study 2 used quantile and multivariate regression to explore heterogeneity in the association. Study 3 used data from the British Household Panel Survey and the United Kingdom Household Longitudinal Study to investigate differences in the association according to age at follow-up, year of birth, and macroeconomic conditions during early adulthood. Study 4 used the same datasets to explore the association between youth unemployment and later allostatic load, a potential mediator of the association between youth unemployment and mental health. Results: Youth unemployment was associated with worse GHQ-12 scores at age 25. The association was robust to defensible modelling assumptions. There was no association between youth unemployment and two placebo outcomes (Study 1). Quantile regression results suggested the association was driven by a minority of individuals with particularly poor GHQ-12 scores at age 25, but there were no clear differences in the association according to candidate moderators (Study 2). Youth unemployment was associated with poorer GHQ-12 regardless of age at follow-up, birth year, or unemployment rates during early adulthood (Study 3). Youth unemployment was related to higher allostatic load in females but not males. There was little evidence that allostatic load mediated associations with later mental health (Study 4). Conclusions: Research should attempt to identify individuals for whom youth unemployment is a stronger signal of future mental health problems and explore the factors which may mediate the association.