‘People tell me they’re not ready to work’: How long-term illness ravaged a city

OOn Wednesday evening, a handful of under-18s gather in the back of a former newspaper building in Hastings for a weekly Dungeons and Dragons evening. Around the table, a teenager peers from behind a limp pony and tells the other players about a monster with jaws wide enough to swallow a man whole. Behind him two boys are playing pool. There is currently no iPhone in sight.

Sidney Ewing, the youth worker who oversees the program, says the majority of young people who come to the center feel insecure about their future. Their most popular night is for young people aged 16 to 18, she says, a generation that has lost two critical years of their education to Covid, with only screens for school and socialising. “Many of them say they are not ready to go to college or work because of their mental health,” she says. “You often hear that: ‘I have to get myself in order first.’”

Britain is suffering from an epidemic of people too sick to work. Economic inactivity due to ill health has increased over the past five years, the longest sustained increase 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 issue for parties in the election campaign.

There are now 700,000 more people who are unable to work due to illness than before Covid. Nine-tenths of that increase can be attributed to two groups: the oldest in the labor market and the very youngest.

Alex Giles landed a job funded by the government’s post-Covid Kickstart program at OBX, Hastings’ digital arts centre. Photo: Andy Hall/The Observer

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

“Hastings city center has one of the highest crime levels in the county, the local schools are constantly changing and the largest employer is the healthcare sector. It’s this perfect storm for young people,” says Matt Davey, the founder of a local community business called Head on Board, which uses skateboarding as a way to talk about mental health and suicide.

In 2019, East Sussex County Council closed thirteen youth clubs and fourteen children’s centres, a pattern being repeated across the country. Local authorities, under pressure from austerity, have cut funding for youth services in England from more than £1 billion to £408.5 million between 2011 and 2021.

Davey was a youth worker at the council in Hastings for more than ten years and saw first-hand the impact of the cuts. Once a young person starts to feel isolated, a vicious cycle can begin, he says: “There are common factors that keep us sane and sane: being connected to people, having a purpose. There is certainly a link between doing something, whether that be volunteering, part-time work or training, and good mental health.”

Like many seaside resorts, Hastings suffers from a lack of high-quality jobs. A quarter of residents work in health and social care. Much of the work in the hospitality industry is seasonal and uncertain. But a growing number of technology companies are creating new opportunities.

The Hastings youth club, aided 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 center that is part of Hastings Commons – an ecosystem of community-led organizations working together to renovate abandoned buildings in the city center. Around the board games and pool table are computers, a digital scanner and a 3D printer.

A tiny gecko made from chocolate has been freshly 3D printed as part of an experiment by Alex Giles. He was two years into a degree in games development in college when the pandemic hit. Without a computer at home, Giles was forced to give up his studies. For the next two years he was on universal credit and struggled to find work, apart from a job packing boxes in a local warehouse one Christmas day.

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Hastings town center: Much of the work in the seaside resort’s hospitality industry is precarious. Photo: Fraser Gray/Rex Shutterstock

He was then offered a job at Hastings Commons under the Government’s post-Covid Kickstart scheme, which provided money to create employment for 16 to 24-year-olds on Universal Credit who were at risk of long-term unemployment. “Kickstart got me back on track,” says Giles. “Before I was in a state of uncertainty. I wanted to find work, but I didn’t know where to start.”

At 22, Giles now works at OBX, experimenting with printed food for a project investigating food poverty. He supports others who come through the building with work experience or 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.

According to the Resolution Foundation, the long-term effect of job losses following rapid deindustrialization in the 1990s was not persistent unemployment, but rather higher levels of economic inactivity due to long-term illness. The think tank says the long-term ill are now disproportionately concentrated in the country’s post-industrial and coastal areas as the ‘hidden unemployed’, challenging the narrative of government statistics that the country is operating at near full employment.

Among working-age adults in England and Wales, new claims for Personal Independence Allowance (Pip) increased by two-thirds (68%) between early 2020 and early 2024. In Hastings, 6,728 people are claiming Pip due to an illness, disability or mental health problem, an increase of 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 will increase by 49% in nominal terms between 2023-24 and 2028-29.

In the boardroom of Hastings Commons, social media assistant Sharon Rhodes recalls the success of a recent campaign. “I made a local historian go viral on TikTok!” she says. With her short-cropped gray hair and denim jacket, Rhodes is in her early fifties, which puts her in the second category: older adults of working age who are increasingly unemployed due to illness.

She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and PTSD more than two decades ago. She was unemployed for ten years before finding the courage to apply for a government access to work scheme. This pays a designated worker to make sure she eats and sleeps – basic activities that still sometimes seem insurmountable.

Sharon Rhodes says her benefits help her keep her job, rather than discourage her from finding work. Photo: Andy Hall/The Observer

In addition to flexible hours, Hastings Commons offers mental health staff training. Crucially, Rhodes’ ten hours of work doesn’t get in the way of the benefits; In addition to income support, she receives employment and support benefits. But she says many people in Hastings are terrified of working for fear of losing their benefits. This culture of fear could get even worse.

In his autumn statement last November, Jeremy Hunt announced changes to disability benefits to make it harder for some people with poor mobility or mental health problems to get additional support. That could make it harder, not easier, for some people to work. Labor has pledged to improve mental health care and reduce NHS waiting lists if it comes to power. A swing of 3.4%, or 3,500 votes, is all that is needed to topple the current Conservative MP in Hastings and Rye, Sally-Ann Hart.

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