A new word has entered common usage as a result of this recession. With young people being the worst affected by the downturn (nearly double the percentage of 16-24 year olds are unemployed compared to the rest of the adult population), we’re hearing a lot about those who are not in employment, education or training. Or ‘neets’ as they’ve become known.
This is undoubtedly one of the most important problems thrown up by the recession. There is a mounting body of evidence that being unemployed early in life can ‘scar’ people later on. If you are out of work when young you are more likely to have spells of unemployment later in life. You’re likely to earn less in the future, too. And we know that being in work is massively important for general well-being, sense of identity and social mobility. So the Conservative candidate for Hammersmith, Shaun Bailey, was right to be hitting the streets this weekend to highlight the problem of youth unemployment. Despite a slew of programmes introduced by the Labour government – from guaranteeing jobs to increasing education places – it looks likely that they’ll miss their target of 7.6% of 16-18 year olds being ‘neet’ this year.
The trouble with ‘the neet problem’ is that it isn’t one problem. It’s lots of very different problems that have been unhelpfully bundled together in a single term. How can politicians come up with policies to help ‘neets’ when it includes everything from top graduates unable to find jobs and those leaving school with no qualifications? And what about those who are ‘neet’ in cities dependent on manufacturing compared to those in rural communities? And don’t forget the difference between men and women – women are four times more likely to have an identified barrier to entering the labour market than men.
The things that are stopping these groups entering the labour market, and the policies that would therefore help them find work, are quite different. So perhaps the first step to tackling the ‘neet problem’ would be to ditch the term ‘neet’. Then we can have a proper discussion about the range of policies that are needed to support these very different groups.