It is well established that having obesity as an adult can reduce your employment prospects and lead to lower wages, especially for women. There is also evidence that children who have obesity tend to perform less well at school. But does having obesity as a child predict low wages and a greater risk of unemployment later on?
For the UK, the answer appears to be ‘No’, or at least not significantly. In a study of three large cohorts of children followed from infancy to adulthood, there was evidence that having obesity was associated with lower educational attainment (lower levels of education completed) but there was no clear evidence that children with obesity were getting less well-paid jobs by the time they reached adulthood, or suffering more unemployment, than their peers.
What the cohorts did confirm, however, is that obesity in adulthood is a disadvantage for employment. As adults, having obesity was associated with a greater likelihood of a lower status job, lower wages earned, and a higher risk of being unemployed compared to adults who did not have obesity. With nearly a quarter of adults aged 25-34 in England now classified as living with obesity. the employment disadvantages may be affecting a large number of young people of working age.
These findings are part of a study examining whether childhood obesity hinders human capital development, led by researchers in Imperial College London. It is part of a research programme into the social and economic value of health, funded by the Health Foundation. The programme aims to understand the extent to which the health of a population – both physical and mental health – shapes the social and economic outcomes of that population. The evidence on children’s employment prospects comes from three cohorts of children born in Britain: the first study followed children born in 1958, the second followed children born in 1970, and the third followed children born in 1991.
Approximately half of primary-school-aged children with obesity do not have obesity as a young adult. Most young adults who have obesity did not have obesity as a child.
- Green: not living with obesity
- Yellow: living with obesity.
Source: Cohort trajectory data from the National Child Development Study (NCDS), and prevalence data from the Health Survey for England surveys for the periods shown, rounded to nearest 5%. Graphic: World Obesity Federation.
Experiencing obesity in childhood is only one of several factors which can affect employment prospects. Gender, ethnicity, and parents’ income and educational levels, interact with weight status to affect a child’s future health status and wealth opportunities. Tackling obesity in childhood is important for preventing further health problems and improve social participation, but it should be seen as one element among many that affect growth and wellbeing.
The researchers make one further point. When they compared the three cohorts, they found evidence for a change in the relation between childhood obesity and employment outcomes over time. The most recent cohort of children born around 1991 not only had higher levels of obesity than earlier cohorts, but also had a greater likelihood of experiencing lower wages than their peers with healthier weight as they enter the labour market in their early twenties when they experienced obesity both in adolescence and adulthood.
Is discrimination becoming more pronounced?
A more recent cohort of children, the Millennium Cohort who were born in 2000-2001, is now being monitored and will provide further evidence. At ages 11 and 16 years old this latest cohort had a significantly higher prevalence of obesity than was seen in any of the previous cohorts. They are now aged 20-21 years old and starting to enter the labour market… except, of course, the context has changed dramatically. COVID-19 has impacted those who were studying in colleges and universities, and the simultaneous economic downturn and recovery is affecting all new entrants to the labour market.
In conclusion, there is weak evidence that childhood obesity has an impact on adult employment opportunities, but adult obesity does have an impact, and this may start as early as when a person first starts to look for employment. There is strong evidence of weight bias and stigma directed against people with excess bodyweight in the workplace. As a recent expert consensus states: “[W]eight stigma damages health, undermines human and social rights, and is unacceptable in modern societies”
In seeking to understand whether obesity hinders human capital development, a new research programme is urgently needed: one which looks at the costs of negative attitudes towards body weight and personal appearance, along with the reinforcement of these negative attitudes in public media and political discourse. We need to assess the economic costs and the social and mental consequences of such bias and discrimination. We need to know why they are perpetuated and who gains from promoting them. And we need to know what we can do to counter them.
The World Obesity Federation is a partner in the Childhood Obesity and Human Capital Development (COHD) project, coordinated by Professor Franco Sassi, Imperial College London, and funded by the Health Foundation. The COHD project involves a consortium of research and civil society partners to conduct a three-year study.
For more information about this project, please contact :