A recent article in the Guardian discussed the use of policy jargon and how it impacts on services. Steph Taylor, the author writes:
Take, for example, tenders that require mental health services to work with “hard to reach young people”. A charity might respond to this, detailing on its website that it targets “hard to reach young people”. An 18-year-old sitting at home struggling to leave the house is unlikely to refer herself to the charity on reading that. At the same time, a nearby charity might tell a 22-year-old that they can’t help with his mental health problem because “hard to reach young people” are catered for down the road. The language we use risks creating services that are “hard to reach”.
It got me thinking again about the acronym ‘NEET’ (Not in Education, Employment or Training). According to the latest data, 963,000 young people aged 16-24 are considered ‘NEET’ in the UK. But as the report goes on to state, ‘not all unemployed 16-24 year olds are NEET and not all people who are NEET are unemployed’ (and not all young people who are unemployed will be captured in government data). This is one of the reasons that the term should perhaps be discarded altogether. To use the transitional metaphor, the pathways from school to employment today are so diverse, that any singular term is doomed to failure if it attempts to capture the experience of even a portion of young people today as they make their way to adult statuses.
The term NEET first appeared in policy in 1999 – before this the label of choice was ‘status zer0’. Howard Williamson argues that this quickly became a contentious term and that the more benign ‘NEET’ was favoured as it has a less problematic ring to it. Status Zer0 and its immediate connotation of people with no status was deemed inappropriate. However, the term NEET is itself problematic for many reasons.
Firstly, the term NEET constructs young people through a negative – i.e. it defines them by what they are not (in employment, education or training). Rather than working with and highlighting the many strengths that every young person has, the narrow ecomomic focus so dominant today means that the focus is on their financial contribution to society. And of course, there can be (and are) myriad reasons why a young person may not be actively engaged in the labour market. Some of these may be positive reasons, some less so and this leads on to the second point;
…that the NEET category (in policy terms) contains within it a population of young people whose reasons for being NEET are so widely varied that the NEET concept turns to ashes in the face of the diversity. Some have caring responsibilities, some have drug and alcohol issues, some have mental and physical issues to deal with, some have criminal histories, some more fortunate young people may be enjoying a break or a ‘gap year’. The point being, of course, that the sheer multitude of experience is impossible to capture under one nice and convenient banner.
Thirdly, NEET also means that the ‘missing middle’ are often overlooked – both in policy and in academia. Both tend to focus on the ‘problem kids’ at the bottom of the social ladder. The problem here is that many young people in the middle are missed. Their experience is vital if we want to understand what is occurring to the ‘ordinary folks’. Steven Roberts makes the crititical point that:
…researching ordinary youth through the 20s can reveal much about young people’s lives, and this period becomes especially prominent given that the age for compulsory learning for young people in the UK is to be raised to 17 in 2013, and 18 in 2015…researching this ‘missing middle’. can add to our understanding of the contemporary youth period.
Between the few at the top and the few at the bottom there is a great many young people today struggling to get by and barely able to make ends meet whose experience is in danger of being overlooked.
Fourthly, NEET is typically framed as a problem with the young person and is bound up in the employabilty agenda. This, of course, has shifted the problem of unemployment on to the shoulders of individual job-seekers. The current government narrative ignores the structural barriers and overlooks the economic and social inequalities which serve to marginalise young people (which increasingly includes young people with resources as well as those without). Chief amongst these is the problem of available jobs, particularly decent jobs which offer some semblance of security, decent pay and future opportunities for development. As i’ve written elsewhere on this blog the overwhelming evidence shows that young people want to work. They want to work and they want a pretty conventional future – house, partner, kids at some point. But the current policy narrative positions many NEET young people as being hostile to work and resistant to joining the labour market. It is, to put it bluntly, untrue.
The fifth reason it should be discarded is that for young people who are NEET and have significant barriers in their lives their unemployment may not in fact be the most salient issue in their life. As Scott Yates & Malcolm Payne note ‘the focus on ‘NEET’ to label such young people can risk diverting attention away from the range of other, often quite profound, risks and difficulties that they face.’ This is something that I have personally noted during my time working in the employability sector as the target culture that exists can mean workers ‘race’ to sort out often quite complex issues in order that young people are ready for job interviews. It is a backward strategy that in the overwhelming majority of cases is doomed to failure. Alan France makes this point in more unambiguous terms – that NEET contributes in policy terms to young people being framed as ‘the feckless underclass who do not need support but punishment. In reality many are in desperate need of intervention and help, being isolated and marginalised.’
My final point is one that Robert MacDonald suggests is the most significant problem of the NEET category – that NEET is a static category which fails to capture the dynamism and flux of the youth labour market experience in recent times. He writes that ‘those most likely to become NEET are also those most likely to have the most insecure, ‘chaotic’ transitions. Government research has acknowledged that there are ‘high degrees of churn within the NEET group … only 1% of young people are NEET at age 16 and 17 and 18’. In other words, long-term youth unemployment is not (yet) a significant policy issue in the UK.‘ The point being that there is no evidence to suggest the existence of an ‘underclass’ of young people who deliberately eschew work, happy to live a subsistence lifestyle on welfare (as often portrayed in media representations). Research suggests that the majority of young people spend time in the ‘churn’ – moving in between employment, training courses and different forms of education. NEET status can be fleeting, transitory and, again, does not accurately capture or reflect the genuine experience of the subject.
In short, the NEET concept appears as a tool to, again, frame the issue of unemployment in individualistic terms – a problem of the young person and one that can only be solved by working ‘on’ the young person to move them to an EET status. But more than this it fails to capture the multitude of experiences that young people have today in the melting pot of neo-liberal, capitalist society. The range of experiences on offer to young people today means that many will not make the linear transition from school-to-work as was the case for the majority in the past.
To try and capture this diverse group with their diverse experiences under one banner seems an exercise doomed to failure. Steph Taylor in her article in the Guardian highlights how important these things can be:
One woman I worked with recently said she liked our organisation because it was the first place she hadn’t been called a NEET – the acronym used to describe young people not in education, employment or training – to her face.
Words have power, especially when they are used to frame the experience of someone in overly simplistic terms. Any new concept must not only pay attention to the rich and varied experience of young people today, but must also look to the structural issues which relegate so many of our young people to the side-lines. For what it’s worth I don’t believe that any such term will exist. In terms of unemployment our starting point should simply be asking why our modern economy is so hostile to the presence of young people. It would make a change to start by looking at the problems on the demand side.