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Recessions can be good for your health, but only if you are male

Boys who leave school or university during a recession experience better health in later life than if they left during a boom, but the situation is reversed for girls, according to new research from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Researchers analysed the long-term health of more than 10,000 people across Europe who left full-time education between 1956 and 1986 in the context of national unemployment rates at the time of leaving. Greater unemployment rates during the school-leaving year were associated with better health at ages 50-74 among men, but worse health among women. Bottle-of-pills-99x148

The research, Are economic recessions at the time of leaving school associated with worse physical functioning in later life?, is published in the latest edition of Annals of Epidemiology. It coincides with European Commission figures released last week which indicate that Eurozone youth unemployment is at a record high of 24.4 per cent.

Philipp Hessel and Mauricio Avendano of LSE Health, a research centre which influences health policy across the world, argue that permanent changes in lifestyle in early adulthood could provide an explanation for why men fare better in recessions. It is thought that temporary economic downturns may promote healthy living in young men who cannot afford to indulge in smoking, alcohol and over-eating, while providing more time for sport and other physical activity. They can also encourage some to become more motivated to achieve and become independent earlier, leading to better long-term career prospects and therefore better health.

Women who leave school during a recession, on the other hand, tend to get married and have children earlier, causing them to opt out of the labour market earlier, leading to poor long-term career prospects and therefore worse long-term health. Working part-time or never entering the labour market can also make women more vulnerable to poverty, particularly in the event of divorce.

Mr Hessel commented: “The recent financial crisis has led to a sharp increase in youth unemployment rates in many European countries, with Spain and Greece experiencing rates as high as 40 per cent for those under 25. Recent reports have warned of the emergence of a “lost generation” of young people who are unable to make the transition from education to work and who will therefore suffer poor future career prospects and substantial earning losses up to 15 years after leaving school or university. This research has, for the first time, shown that youth unemployment appears to affect the long-term health of men and women quite differently.”

Dr Avendano added: "The interesting element of this paper is the idea that health may be more vulnerable to recessions if experienced during specific sensitive periods in the life-course. Our results suggest that the transition from school to work might be one of such sensitive periods, with recessions in young adulthood affecting long-term career, fertility and health trajectories, and ultimately health in later life."

Notes to editors

For a copy of the report, please email j.m.bale@lse.ac.uk 

To interview the authors please contact:

Philipp Hessel: p.hessel@lse.ac.uk or 0207 107 5380 

Dr Mauricio Avendano: m.avendano-pabon@lse.ac.uk or 0207 955 7203 

3 December 2013