Changes and Challenges:

A Decade of Observations of the Health and Well-Being of Young Adults in British Columbia

Bonnie Leadbeater, Richard Stanwick, and Murray Fyfe

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Young adulthood is often idealized as the “best years of your life.” We see young adults as independent, healthy, and free from the responsibilities of older adults.  Media images of this age group often focus on their socially active life styles.  Their lack of sleep may be attributed to personal choices that involve too much screen time, too much drinking, or too much socialization.  These stereotypes, however, do not take into account the diversity of young adult experiences.

A new report “Changes and Challenges:  A Decade of Observations of the Health and Well-Being of Young Adults in British Columbia” presents a revealing overview about how well young adults in our communities are actually coping.  The report is based on a series of repeat interviews over 10 years with 662 young people from greater Victoria through the Victoria Healthy Youth Survey (V-HYS) . Youth who participated in the study came from varied socio-economic backgrounds and are thought to fairly represent the broad range of young people in our communities.  Readers are encouraged to review the full report here.

There is much good news in this report.  Many youth pursued higher education with 45percent completing a university degree, 23 percent obtaining a college diploma, and 19 percent becoming certified in a trade.  Furthermore, most were working, either full time or part time, and earning an income. Most reported that they were physically healthy, and their mental health and well-being increased as they transitioned into young adulthood.  Mast young people stayed highly connected to their parents and are also supported by friends and romantic partners. Connections to their communities are also strong; most contributed as volunteers.   Risky behaviours, more typical in adolescent years, declined over time.

Although many findings from the survey were encouraging, the report also identifies a number of concerns these young people faced.  For those pursuing education, an identified challenge was balancing educational requirements with the need to support themselves through full- or part- time work.  Their work weeks often extend well beyond what is considered normal-working hours for adults.   Thus, while this is a time of greater choice, it is also a time of greatest demand for both work and advanced education.

It should be no surprise, then, that the leading problem cited by the young adults in this study was work-related and financial stress. Stress is associated with many aspects of young adults’ lives. Far from the carefree, party-oriented youth-culture of the advertisements that target them, many youth in this study were found to be juggling education, work, lack of sleep, and mental health and relationship problems.  Many young adults were shouldering debt that was greatly disproportionate to their incomes

While most reported being healthy, the survey identified a number of health concerns.  Risky behaviours including problem substance use, and sexual practices increased for some.  Some struggle with depression through their young adult years.  One-third suffered an injury that was serious enough to limit their daily activity.   Perhaps most concerning, though, was the finding that health conditions that are more typical later in life, were beginning to have an impact during these younger years.  Hypertension and obesity already threatened the long term health of more than a third of these young people. And physical activity declined rapidly both during and after high school years.

Underlying many of the challenges faced by young adults are the fragmented supports that are available to this age group.  This may be because health, education, and social policies tend to be created in independent siloes.  Many other concerns like fixed incomes, debt, cost of housing, labour market limitations, transportation, banking and lending practices, and health insurance are not considered from a young adult perspective.  Rather, policies in these areas often are applied to all adults between 19 and 64 equally and do not take into account the unique needs of these younger people during this period of transition.

Finally, the report identifies recommendation and actions that can be followed to support young people as they transition into adulthood.  A public health approach with an emphasis on healthy public policies can have wide reaching effects.  This includes policies related to income, post-secondary education, affordable housing, transportation, and access to healthy food.  In addition, improved self-care through adequate sleep, physical activity, healthy eating, and stress regulation must be valued for this age group.  Care providers can focus on prevention related to health issues such as obesity, hypertension, and substance use problems.  And perhaps most importantly for this age group we must, as a society, take a whole person approach that sees young adults as connected to parents, friends, and romantic partners rather than as independent and isolated

Thus, while the health and well-being of young adults may not often be at the forefront of our minds, support for this age group does deserve more attention.  This is the workforce that will drive BC’s economy in the next decades. They will become the parents and supporters of the next generation. They are our future!