Hard Evidence: who are the NEETS?

Destination unknown: measuring youth unemployment is a fraught business. Martin Rickett/PA

Governments across Europe are searching for effective policies to drive down youth unemployment. Most European countries have experienced an alarming rise in the levels of young people (16-24) who are detached from both the labour market and the education and training system, and the scarring effects of long-term youth unemployment challenge them to mount successful and sustainable interventions.

The scale of the problem is made clear by Eurostat statistics published in February 2014, which show that at the end of last year, more than half of young people in Greece (59%) and Spain (54.6%) were unemployed. Only Germany had a level below 10%, at 7.6%.

The UK’s own figures for October to December 2013, meanwhile, showed that there were 1.04 million young people (aged from 16 to 24) who were not in education, employment or training (NEET), representing 14.4% of the cohort

There is a tendency to connect this substantial rise in youth unemployment to the post-2008 financial crisis, but a recent IPPR report points out that youth unemployment across Europe had “been rising relative to the unemployed rate of older adults for far longer”.

In the UK, the term NEET is now commonly used to evoke general disengagement and social exclusion among young people, not just unemployment. But while “youth unemployment” and “NEET” tend to be used interchangeably to quantify levels of inactivity, it is vital to make a distinction between the two counts.

Who’s a NEET – and who isn’t?

The term “NEET” emerged in the UK in the late 1990s to classify 16 to 18-year-olds who could no longer be counted as “unemployed” because of changes to unemployment benefit entitlement regulations. It is now applied more widely and covers a broader age spectrum, typically 15 to 24-year-olds. In contrast, the youth unemployment rate is more narrowly defined; it is simply the number of all young people (15 to 24) who are unemployed expressed as a percentage of the total number of people in that age group.

An emerging problem in England is a lack of comprehensive data on the current status of those within the age group, with wide regional variations in the proportions of young people whose status is known at all. Across the English regions, NEET rates among 16 to 18-year-olds at the end of 2012 did not match the rate of youth with no measured “destination” – a definition combining NEET young people with those whose status was unknown.

While it cannot be assumed that young people with unknown destinations after leaving education will all be NEET, the varying gaps between these two figures raise serious questions about the accuracy of official rates.

These concerns come at a time of serious cuts to Local Authority staffing and budgets. Recent research has unearthed widespread concerns that current tracking and data sharing systems could not be sustained if local authority staffing levels continue to be reduced.

Simultaneously, the rise of academies and free schools has left many core responsibilities devolved from local authority control. This includes the delivery of careers guidance, which is now increasingly in the hands of individual schools and colleges. These policy changes have fractured many authorities’ established links with local schools and colleges, and have accordingly weakened their capacity to collect complete destinations data on school leavers.

What’s to be done?

These problems with post-16 destination data, and the escalating levels of destinations being recorded as “unknown”, show that we have a weak understanding of the circumstances, activities, and support needs of a significant proportion of young people. If we want to better understand the needs of those who are NEET and make appropriate and effective policy for them, we need to do a better job of understanding their broad characteristics.

For example, it is all too easy to assume that the majority of those who are NEET, or at risk of becoming NEET, are from clearly vulnerable or marginalised groups. While certain characteristics (poor educational performance, disaffection with education and low socio-economic status) are more prevalent, many young people who are NEET have average levels of attainment and live at home supported by their family.

They can all too easily become “invisible” in the data. Policy tends to focus on the most marginalised and vulnerable groups, while members of mainstream groups fly under the radar – until they become eligible for social security and associated benefits.

There is a clear case for reevaluating the NEET and unemployment counts as measures of youth disengagement – and rethinking whether the term “NEET”, as currently defined and applied, is appropriate at all. New, more precise tracking systems must to be introduced as a matter of urgency if policy is to successfully target the NEET group. Without a much clearer understanding of the scale of the problem, we can hardly expect it to get better.

Hard Evidence is a series of articles in which academics use research evidence to tackle the trickiest public policy questions.