Young, Female and Forgotten?

Posted in: Business and the labour market, Welfare and social security

Professor Sue Maguire is Honorary Professor at the IPR, and is distinguished by her important work on the topics of education, employment and social policy.

Way back in 1988, the Thatcher government, through the Social Security Act, took most young people under the age of 18 out of the unemployment statistics by effectively removing their welfare entitlement. Then, in the 1990s, concerns over the numbers of 16-18 year olds who were not engaging in formal learning, training or employment led to the creation of the term ‘NEET’ (not in education, employment or training) – which sought to capture the size and scale of youth disengagement and social exclusion. In the UK, as in most countries across Europe and other advanced economies, the economic turmoil of the 2000s saw an alarming rise in the levels of young people who are detached from both the labour market and the education and training system. However, rather than the initial focus on a younger cage group, the term ‘NEET’ is now applied internationally to a much wider cohort, typically 16-24-year olds (and, in some countries, up to the age of 29 years), and includes young people in receipt of unemployment benefit as well as to those who claim other types of welfare support or none at all. Despite the official NEET figures in the UK falling over the last couple of years, the numbers remain persistently high. For example, in the period January to March 2016, 865,000 young people (aged 16 to 24 years) were NEET[1]. Of these, 485,000 (56%) were classified to be ‘economically inactive’, with the remainder being ‘unemployed and actively seeking work’.

A striking feature of these statistics is that young women accounted for nearly two thirds (62 per cent) of the economically inactive group, but only 40 per cent of the unemployed group. In the UK, trend data show that young women consistently outnumber young men within the economically inactive group, although the number of economically inactive young men is currently rising. While there have been a number of studies[2] which have segmented the NEET group in terms of young people’s propensity to re-engage with education, employment or training, the prevalence of high economic inactivity rates among young women is under-researched. This perhaps reflects a widespread belief that it is largely attributable to early motherhood or other caring responsibilities and that this group of young people requires little policy attention or intervention because of their domestic commitments. Such assumptions run counter to a body of research evidence which has demonstrated that periods of economic inactivity in early life leave a scar on the individual’s education and employment prospects that persists over time[3].

I am currently collaborating with the Young Women’s Trust (YWT) in undertaking a two-year study (2015-2017), with supported funding from the Barrow Cadbury Trust, to examine economic inactivity rates and why they disproportionately impact on the lives of young women. Early evidence from the research points to the picture being far more complex than the conventional explanations would suggest. It is apparent that there has been a distinct lack of investigation into why so many young women are economically inactive, and at a time when teenage pregnancy rates have reached their lowest levels across England and Wales[4]. While engaging in ‘caring responsibilities’ is undoubtedly a significant factor, evidence about the characteristics of young women who carry this label, where they live, who they are caring for and for how long, as well as data on what types of intervention they attract or require, is thin on the ground. What is clear is that economically inactive women (and men) are assigned to different welfare trajectories than the young unemployed, with those on Employment Support Allowance (ESA), Income Support (IS) and Carer’s Allowance (CA) receiving significantly less intensive support and intervention than those on Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA). Crucially, young people on ESA/IS/CA are not included in the ‘official’ unemployment statistics.

High rates of economic inactivity within the NEET population are not peculiar to the UK. Young women are disproportionately more likely to be NEET and economically inactive in almost all OECD countries, with the exceptions of Luxembourg and Spain. Female NEET inactivity is overwhelmingly linked to child or elder care and/or other domestic/family responsibilities and in some countries, to cultural expectations. As an extreme case, 40 per cent of young girls in Turkey are NEET (compared to 18 per cent of boys), of which 93 per cent are economically inactive, possibly with family care responsibilities[5]. It is contended by Assaad and Levison that inadequate global labour market demand for young people invariably leads to young women being more likely to be found doing non-labour-force work and less likely to report themselves as actively seeking work. This results in many young women not being included in the unemployment rate, especially when the ‘seeking work’ criteria are applied[6].

While large groups of economically inactive females are a common feature among most NEET populations world-wide, there is a dearth of national and international evidence about effective interventions to reverse this trend, or, in fact, to accurately quantify or qualify their composition or existence. Some commentators highlight that the NEET economically inactive group is essentially an under-researched ‘black box’, which is categorised in terms of what young people are not doing, as opposed to understanding the likelihood of young people within the overall group or subgroups (re)engaging with education, employment or training (EET)[7]. The research by the YWT is exploring the reality of the lives of young women in the economically inactive group in England, including an analysis of their circumstances and aspirations. It is being carried out in a climate where impending welfare cuts are likely to remove even greater numbers of young people from independent welfare support, including housing benefit. However, early evidence suggests that the majority of economically inactive young women live with their families or relatives, with the impact of their ‘exclusion’ being borne by themselves and their household group.

With regard to future policymaking, the research into the economically inactive NEET group also calls into question the continued rationale for assigning both the young unemployed (i.e. those ‘actively seeking work’) and the economically inactive group within the umbrella term ‘NEET’. Is such an approach an equitable or acceptable way of ensuring that significant numbers of young women (and men) are not simply ‘written off’? Given that the epithet ‘NEET’ was coined originally in the UK to define 16- and 17-year olds who were outside the unemployment count, but is now commonly applied to those over 18 who are eligible to claim unemployed status, it may be both opportune and productive to question whether ‘NEET’, as currently defined and applied, is appropriate. Certainly, if it is applied too casually, it may mask rising and unacceptable levels of inactivity among young people. Another issue is whether an age range of 16-24 is too wide, as it encompasses significantly different ‘sections’ of the life course. Pronounced differences are apparent between the under-18s NEET group and the 18-24s NEET group in the UK. Here, the percentage of under-18s who are NEET is higher for males, whereas among the 18-24s, the percentage of females who are NEET is higher than that of males. Overall, there is an urgent need to reappraise how we define the NEET group, and, as a consequence, to re-think our policy responses to the issues confronting the various sub-groups within the NEET category.

At present, policy intervention is primarily targeted at young people who are ‘available for work’ (i.e. the unemployed group within the NEET population), as opposed to those who are defined as economically inactive. In order to formulate appropriate policy measures, we first of all need to identify and locate those who are presently ‘unknown’, ‘missing’ or ‘forgotten’, as far as the statistics are concerned. Along with this process, we need to generate substantive evidence – especially relating to the legion of young women who are affected – about what support, if any, they require. Crucially, this will include understanding what works best in assisting them to engage with support services and what additional support mechanisms may be required to attain an education, employment or training (EET) outcome. As far as current policy direction in the UK is concerned, there is a need to assess the potential impact of any national roll-out of Universal Credit on the future trajectories of the economically inactive NEET group.

[1] Office for National Statistics (ONS) (2016), Statistical Bulletin ‘Young People Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET), May 2016’, 26th May.
[2] Eurofound (2016) ‘Exploring the diversity of NEETs’, Publication Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.
[3] Britton J, Gregg P, MacMillan L, Mitchell S. (2011) The Early Bird... Preventing Young People from becoming a NEET statistic. Department of Economics and CMPO, University of Bristol.
[5] Bardak, U., Maseda, M. R. and Rosso, F. (2015) Young People Not in Employment Nor in Education or Training (NEET): An overview in ETF partner countries. Turin, European Training Foundation. July.
[6] Assaad, R. and Levison, D. (2013) Employment for Youth – A Growing Challenge for the Global Economy’. Background Research Paper. Submitted to the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. University of Minnesota.
[7] Tamesberger, D. & Bacher, J. (2014) NEET youth in Austria: a typology including socio-demography, labour market behaviour and permanence. Journal of Youth Studies. 17:9, 1239-1259.

Posted in: Business and the labour market, Welfare and social security


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  • Great article.

    Do you have any figures for Bristol around this subject - I am very interested.

    Best wishes
    Nicky Williams
    Skills Manager