Who cares? Exploring economic inactivity among young people in the NEET group

Posted in: Evidence and policymaking, Welfare and social security

Professor Sue Maguire is Honorary Professor at the IPR.

Recent trends in the official statistics point to declining youth unemployment rates in the UK. This has enabled some policymakers to suggest that young people who are NEET (not in education, employment or training), and particularly the young unemployed, no longer constitute a significant ‘problem’. However, the picture painted tells only half the story. The reality is that less than half of young people (aged 16-24) who are defined as NEET are classified as actively seeking work or ‘unemployed’, with the remainder being defined as economically inactive (EI). Those in the EI group do not appear in the unemployment statistics because they are not actively seeking work and are assigned different types of welfare support and intervention.

Gender differences are apparent in terms of representation in both the economically active (EA) and the EI groups. Overall, nearly 800,000 (11.1%) young people in the UK aged 16-24 are NEET. Of the NEET group as a whole, only 38% are classed as EA, of whom 63% are young men. In June-September 2017 there were 188,000 young men and 111,000 young women in this category. In contrast, there are many more young people in the NEET EI group. At the last estimate, there were 264,000 young women EI compared to 227,000 young men. While there are more young women than young men who are EI (54%), the picture has dramatically changed over the last two years, with increasing numbers of young men falling into this category, at the same time as overall numbers of women who are NEET and EI are falling. Another key feature of NEET EI status is that young people have a much greater propensity to remain in this category for considerable periods of time and to be long-term welfare dependent, in comparison to their counterparts who are classified as unemployed. I would argue not only that the overall numbers of NEET EI young people call for the current policy ‘blind eye’ to be revoked, but also that the underlying trends in the composition of the group warrant immediate attention in order to address their needs.

At the moment, scant attention is paid to understanding the underlying causes of NEET EI status and, crucially, its impact on large numbers of young people’s lives. Broadly, among young women, the attributed cause of most of their EI status is because of their caring responsibilities, whilst among young men it is due to health conditions, which are dominated by mental health problems. As far as young women are concerned, recent research has shed light on important factors which impinge on their everyday lives and on the barriers they face in coping with their situation and seeking to improve their life chances.

Over the last two years, in collaboration with Young Women’s Trust (YWT), I have undertaken the Understanding Economic Inactivity Among Young Women Aged 16-24 project, which was co-funded by YWT and the Barrow Cadbury Trust. As part of this study, we completed in-depth interviews with 57 young women across nine different geographical locations in England. They were recruited via their contact with a charity or local organisation which worked with young mothers and/or vulnerable groups of young people. While the sample provided an illuminating account of their lived experiences of being defined as NEET and EI, it also highlighted that there were many more young women in NEET EI status who do not engage with any voluntary or statutory services and whose lives and whereabouts are hidden and unknown.

The research evidence

In line with common perceptions, ‘caring responsibilities’ were a key feature of many of these young women’s lives. Twenty-four young women were caring for their young children and/or were pregnant; a further two had children who had been taken into care; and twelve were caring for a parent/grandparent, although they were not an official ‘carer’. Importantly, however, many young women in the sample had either fallen into or had assumed caring and domestic responsibilities because they happened to be at home and were able to take on these duties within their households, as the vast majority (35 in total) lived within their family home. Therefore, for some, ‘caring’ was a consequence of, rather than a cause of, being economically inactive.

Moreover, having caring responsibilities was not always the primary cause of their EI status. A significant finding was the high incidence of mental health problems among EI young women. Certainly, within this sample, many young women spoke about their problems with depression and anxiety, their treatment programmes (if any) and how their mental illness inhibited their ability to participate in education, employment or training. In some cases, there was evidence of long-standing issues which had started in school, while in others problems had been triggered following a period of post-natal depression. Issues mentioned by small numbers of respondents included: hospitalisation for mental health problems; self-harming; suicide attempts; and mental health issues being linked to alcohol and drug problems.

Indeed, an overarching finding from the research was the extent to which many young women faced multiple barriers. For example, while a young woman may be in receipt of welfare support for caring for a child, this often sat alongside recognised problems with depression and anxiety and/or caring for other family members. That is to say, while their EI status may have been attributed to one factor, other ‘causes’ or consequences were also present.

The majority of young women in the sample relied heavily on their family for practical, financial and emotional support, with most of them living with or near their close family network. In particular, some found it a real struggle to make or change benefit claims, and consequently faced financial turbulence and insecurity. A common cause of such disruption was switching benefit claims as a result of changes in personal circumstances or new types of welfare support – such as Personal Independence Payment and Universal Credit – being introduced.

Among those who were independent from family support, and who lived alone and/or were lone parents, financial difficulties were particularly acute. This was often compounded by a lack of professional support and wider social contact, with limited friendship networks, social activities and no means to travel. In such circumstances, the ability to establish and sustain a positive relationship with a key professional – such as a youth worker, a social worker or a community psychiatric nurse – was crucial in helping them navigate their way through welfare entitlements, housing issues and day-to-day living.

Somewhat contrary to conventional perceptions, most young women in the sample had academic and/or vocational qualifications, with the majority having undertaken post-16 provision. However, what remains disturbing is the extent to which they were unable to build on their qualification base to progress into higher level educational provision or good quality and sustainable training and employment opportunities. Many had ‘churned’ between Level 1 and Level 2  (below ‘A’ level equivalent) provision with a range of providers. While this lack of progression could be attributed to the disruption caused by an unexpected pregnancy, childcare responsibilities or health issues, the lack of opportunity for many young women to access independent guidance and support, as well as to secure ‘small steps’ or pathways towards economic and social independence, is significant.

As well as suffering from financial hardship, NEET and EI young women were often isolated, disconnected and hard to reach. They were dependent on small family networks within confined communities, with little access to external support or recognition. In addition, low levels of self-worth and self-esteem were commonplace. For this group of young women, particularly those with children, their journey back into the world of work was strewn with a range of what appeared to them to be insurmountable obstacles, notably: their lack of self-confidence; the challenges of securing and funding reliable childcare; and finding employment in local economies where opportunity structures appeared to be stacked against them.

‘Writing off’ NEET and EI young women on the basis of their having ‘caring responsibilities’ is clearly unacceptable when, behind these labels, there is a range of issues which could, and should, be addressed by imaginative policymaking. And what about NEET and EI young men? Should we just assume that they have health problems and we cannot devise appropriate policy responses to address their issues? Or do we make efforts to secure a better understanding of their needs and to develop responsive policy interventions?

What needs to happen?

With nearly 60 per cent of the NEET group comprising young people who are EI, serious questions need to be asked about why such large numbers of young people are assigned to and remain in this status for considerable periods of time. The research evidence shows that it is too simplistic an explanation to ‘write off’ large numbers of young women in the NEET EI group because they are assumed to have caring responsibilities. Similarly, the growth in the number of young men who are categorised as EI, most notably because of mental health problems, is a disturbing trend. Moreover, for both young women and young men who are deemed to be NEET and economically inactive, the dearth of knowledge and understanding about their everyday existence, coupled with a paucity of policy intervention to support them is scandalous. So, while policymakers applaud the reduction in youth unemployment rates, the thorny issue of facing up to young people’s economic inactivity rates – providing tailored support and access to high quality transition opportunities and tackling economic and social exclusion in many communities – still persists.

Read more about Professor Sue Maguire’s work with NEET young women as part of the Young female and forgotten? project, or find out about her work with the Government Equalities Office to identify and remove obstacles preventing women from engaging in local and national politics.

Posted in: Evidence and policymaking, Welfare and social security


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  • Good paper. Informative. A real challenge to help these young people fulfil their potential.