OBJECTIVE: To identify health and socioeconomic factors in childhood that are precursors of unemployment in early adult life and to examine the hypothesis that young men who become unemployed are more likely to have accumulated risks to health during childhood. DESIGN: Longitudinal birth cohort study. The amount of unemployment experienced in early adult life up to age 32 years was the outcome measure used. Exposure measures to indicate vulnerability to future ill health were: height at age 7 years and the Bristol social adjustment guide (BSAG) at age 11 years, a measure of behavioural maladjustment. Socioeconomic measures were: social class at birth, crowding at age 7, qualifications attained before labour market entry, and region of residence. SETTING: Great Britain. SUBJECTS: Altogether 2256 men with complete data from the national child development study (NCDS). The NCDS has collected data on all men and women born in one week in 1958 and has followed them up using interviews, self completion questionnaires, and medical examinations at birth and at ages 7, 11, 16, 23 and 33 years. RESULTS: A total of 269 men (11.9%) experienced more than one year of unemployment between ages 22 and 32 years. Poor socioeconomic conditions in childhood and a lack of qualifications were associated with an increased risk of unemployment. Geographical region was also significant in determining the risk of unemployment. Men with short stature and poor social adjustment in childhood were more likely to experience unemployment in adult life, even after controlling for socioeconomic background, education, and parental height. These differences remained when those with chronic childhood illnesses were excluded from the analysis. The adjusted relative odds for experiencing more than one year of unemployment between ages 22 and 32 years for men who were in the top fifth of the BSAG distribution (most maladjusted) compared with those in the bottom fifth were 2.36 (95% CI 1.49, 3.73). The adjusted relative odds for experiencing more than one year of unemployment between ages 22 and 32 years for men who were in the bottom fifth of the distribution of height at age 7 years (indicating slowest growth) compared with those in the top fifth, were 2.41 (95% CI 1.43, 4.04). Adult height was not significantly associated with unemployment. CONCLUSION: The relationship between unemployment and poor health arises, in part, because men who become unemployed are more likely to have accumulated risks to health during childhood, reflected by slower growth and a greater tendency to behavioural maladjustment. Short stature in childhood is a significant indicator of poor socioeconomic circumstances in childhood and reflects earlier poor development.
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