There have been growing concerns about the number of young carers in the UK and how looking after someone else might affect their life and put them at a disadvantage compared with their peers. Initial findings from a new study looking at the prevalence of caregiving among 16-29 year-olds in the UK has highlighted the issue further and prompted calls for policymakers to provide better services and more targeted support for young carers, many of whom already come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The findings also draw attention to the increased role of young women as carers. Giorgio Di Gessa and colleagues from UCL’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health outline their findings and recommendations for next steps in supporting young people at this crucial time in their lives.
Until now, very little was known about the proportion of young adults in the UK caring for others. Not only that, but also who these carers are, the backdrop to their lives and how and whether they are managing in their own lives.
Our research project has begun to try to paint a more comprehensive picture of all this to see how and where inequalities may exist or emerge over time between those young people who are in a caring role and those who are not.
Using information collected by the Understanding Society study we could see that between 2009-2021 around one in ten young people was providing care with many of them (more than half) doing so over a period of years.
Overall, about 50% of carers spent 0–4 hours per week providing care (the lowest category in the questionnaire); the majority (92%) cared for only one person; the most frequently reported recipients of care were parents (42%) or grandparents (40%). Nearly half the carers (49%) reported this activity for only 1 year, with almost 30% caregiving for 3 or more years.
Compared with non-carers, the young people in our study came from more disadvantaged backgrounds. They tended to be financially worse off, in less well paid routine or manual jobs, from an ethnic minority and to report poorer health, particularly if they told us they were caring at two or more points across the 10 year period.
Young carers who were either looking after a parent (41%) or a partner (5%) were more likely to be living in a household dependent on a single income and/or benefits.
Women carers and those aged 25–29 devoted more hours to more people, and cared on average for more years than male carers and those aged 24 or younger respectively.
Another interesting finding from this research was that carers aged 25–29 were more likely to look after partners and children while younger ones were more likely to care for grandparents and siblings.
Finally, we noted very few differences between carers living in rural versus urban settings, except young carers in rural settings were more likely to provide care for friends and neighbours, and to provide fewer hours of care compared to those who live in cities, in line with studies suggesting that people in rural areas have stronger community relations than those in urban areas, and that people in these communities are more likely to help non-family members.
Of course, living in more straitened circumstances likely makes accessing and affording more formal paid for care and support less possible. In addition, having to care for someone might make getting a job difficult or even impossible in some cases. It’s entirely possible that young carers might fall into poorer financial circumstances because the person they care for can no longer contribute to the household finances.
Although it’s not possible for us to say at this point whether being in a caring role over a period of time somehow causes people to fall into financial hardship or whether coming from a poorer background somehow leads directly to the need for a carer, we can say with confidence that young carers who care for longer are also more likely to be worse off.
This may in turn exacerbate existing inequalities in early life at a time when many young adults make important, arguably life-defining, transitions in their lives, such as going to college or university, starting work or leaving home and moving in with a partner to name but a few.
Because of their caregiving responsibilities, a considerable number of young people might experience difficulties with many of these important transitions, with detrimental economic and health effects that might persist into later life.
Up to date description
Put together, these findings provide an up-to-date description of young carers in the UK and help to paint a clearer picture of the informal care being carried out by young people. They reinforce the idea that informal care, even at younger ages, is not evenly distributed across different social and age groups.
They also suggest that a ‘gendered experience of care provision’ is apparent already from younger ages, with a growing feminisation of care and possibly greater expectations of care placed on girls and young women as carers get older.
All this tells us that a one size fits all policy approach to supporting young carers simply won’t work and that policymakers need to consider appropriate support and formal care services that work to to reduce inequalities between those who care and those who do not and also between those who start out disadvantaged already and those who do not.
is research by Giorgio Di Gessa, Baowen Sue, Rebecca Lacey and Anne McMunn and is published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.