Evidence
Alert

Missed life opportunities for young adult carers cost the UK £1bn every year

Young adult carers are more likely to be unemployed, to have lower earnings from paid work, and to have worse physical and mental health than other young people. A major study found that these negative effects on young carers aged 16-25 years, also cost the UK economy one billion pounds every year.

The study is the first to look at this age group and the first to analyse the associated economic costs. It calculated the costs to the economy as a combination of a reduced amount of tax paid by the young carer, more benefits claimed, and greater use made of health services.

These carers often look after older relatives. The study found that the negative impacts of caring are likely to compound existing inequalities in society. Young adult carers were more likely to be female, have lower educational qualifications and live in social housing.

The results highlight the need for improved formal care services, and more support for young and young adult carers.

What’s the issue?

Along with many other countries, England has a gap in provision of social care: the population is ageing and the need for care increasing, but provision of formal care services has declined. Unpaid care provision has grown to fill the gap, often with young people caring for older relatives.

Providing such care puts a heavy burden on young people. Policy makers have tried to address this, most notably through the 2014 Care Act. The Act means that local authorities have a duty to assess the needs of carers and offer them support but it applies only to those aged 18 years and over. Most young adult carers have not had their needs assessed.

Efforts to reduce the burden on carers have mostly focused on those aged under 16. There is less information about the impact of providing unpaid care on those aged 16-25, and almost none on the consequences for wider society.

What’s new?

This research was based on data collected from three waves of the UK Household Longitudinal Study (2013 to 2017). It compared employment, earnings and health impacts for 561 young adult carers and 6342 non-carers of the same age, at two time points 12 months apart. It also looked at broader economic impacts on society.

The results showed that, compared to non-carers, carers:

  • were twice as likely to have left employment and become unemployed in the 12 month period
  • had worse physical and mental health
  • were about £160 worse-off per month
  • paid £741 less in tax per year
  • claimed £44 per month more in welfare benefits
  • cost the health service £289 more per year.

Overall, the costs to the state were £1.048 billion each year. That is a combination of £497 million in foregone tax revenue, £357 million in welfare benefits and £194 million for health service costs.

Why is this important?

Young adult carers are taking responsibility for the welfare of older relatives, often for years and at a critical time in their own education, mental health and transition into adulthood.

Many of the negative consequences the study identifies – on employment prospects and on physical and mental health – have the potential to persist for years afterwards. This is especially problematic because many of those young adult carers care belong to disadvantaged groups.

Taken together, the study reinforces the moral and economic case for addressing shortcomings in the formal provision of care. It also demonstrates the need for policy makers to address the needs of young adult carers and to provide prevention, early intervention, and ongoing support for young adult carers.

What’s next?

The results add to much existing evidence that England, and other countries, need to restructure and invest in services that provide formal social care. This is a complicated task but the researchers say it must be addressed. Providing better social care has substantial public support.

The heavy burden on young adult carers means that many limit their current future prospects. This study highlights the need for more rigorous checks on the young adults’ own welfare and situation. The rights to such assessments are laid out in the 2014 Care Act, but most young adult carers have not had these assessments. It can be difficult even to identify and contact younger carers.

The researchers say an important follow-up to this study is to check on the longer-term health and prospects of young adult carers. If the negative impacts on carers’ lives last for years afterwards – as experts fear it will – that would bolster the case for finding ways to intervene and help at an earlier stage.

You may be interested to read

The full paper: Brimblecombe N, and others. The high cost of unpaid care by young people: health and economic impacts of providing unpaid care. BMC Public Health. 2020;20:1115

The wider study: The UK household longitudinal study

Review article: Sempik J, and others. Young Carers Research, Practice and Policy: An Overview and Critical Perspective on Possible Future DirectionsAdolescent Res. 2020;5:77–89

The Children's Society support website for carers: Supporting young carers

The Carers Trust website, a major charity for, with, and about carers.

Funding

This research was funded by the NIHR School for Social Care Research.

Commentaries

Study author

Nobody has looked before at the costs to young people and to government of young people providing care. To see it was more than a billion pounds a year was really surprising. It was disheartening to see the extent of how providing care, in many cases because of lack of alternatives, affected the young people and how it could lead to a compounding of existing disadvantages.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of care provision in this country, and some of the problems. It is obviously not realistic to think that this one piece of research will be enough to change things on its own. But I think that showing quite how expensive the current set-up is will strengthen the case for reform.

Nicola Brimblecombe, Researcher on Care Policy, London School of Economics

Young carers’ support worker

When young adults have to care for a family member in their spare time instead of socialising with friends, it can prevent them making sound friendships. This can lead to them feeling isolated and lonely. They may have poor attendance at sixth form or college due to their caring role, and it can prevent them from going on to further education such as university. This can affect their future career prospects.

Frequent short breaks from home life can really help, especially if they are surrounded by friends or other young carers. These respite breaks can help them feel less alone in their struggles. One to one sessions with an adult outside of the family can also help them express their feelings and worries around their caring role, and they can receive advice. This sort of intervention and support can make a real difference.

Sophie Phillips, Young Carers’ Support, Kingston Carers Network

Health economist

This paper is the first attempt to quantify the public sector costs of young adults providing unpaid care. Importantly it demonstrates that there is not just a moral argument for supporting young adult carers but also a major economic argument. At present, however, we do not know whether carer support will necessarily reduce other areas of public expenditure. This depends on whether support improves carer health/wellbeing and frees young adult carers to engage in the labour market.

Demonstrating that unpaid care has a causal relationship with increased public expenditure is fraught with difficulties. However, the data the researchers analyse capture the likely areas of public spending. Two different approaches both point to informal care by young adults being associated with public sector expenditure in the region of £1bn, giving further confidence in this finding.

For balance, it would be good to understand the net impact of unpaid care on public expenditure. This would involve factoring in public expenditure savings alongside costs. This might include savings on formal social care (as a result of young adults’ care provision) and education savings (if young carers are less likely to engage in university education).

Hareth Al-Janabi, Professor of Health Economics, Institute of Applied Health Research, University of Birmingham

Conflicts of Interest

None declared.