Social failure, embodied in an acronym

Meet the NEETs, young people not in education, employment, or training


Felix Clay / Eyevine / Redux

In the U.K., the defining social-concern acronym of this century’s first decade was undoubtedly the ASBO. The Blair government introduced “anti-social behaviour orders” in 1998 to handle destructive young idlers who make neighbourhoods unpleasant with petty activities not quite up to the notice of criminal law, such as minor vandalism, verbal abusiveness, drunken noisemaking, or public transport fare-dodging. ASBOs were intentionally made customizable. A youngster, though not all those branded with the fatal letters were young, could be ordered to desist from wearing a particular gang symbol or loitering in some specific park.

If you know Britain, you can guess the two things that happened next: Social workers and theorists denounced the ASBO as a stigmatizing species of bureaucratic tyranny, and young people who got them made them a badge of honour. The ASBO, for these and other reasons, did not turn out to be much use, and the coalition government has put them in abeyance.

With a new British government and a newly straitened economic environment, there is a new—and not unrelated—candidate for the acronym du jour: NEET. It refers to a young person “not in education, employment, or training.” And this one, I suspect, is a keeper. Coined in the late ’90s by a planning outfit called the Social Exclusion Unit, it has passed far beyond Britain’s borders. The OECD has begun publishing international comparisons of NEET statistics, and Statistics Canada has begun using the term.

Reading the British regional press puts you in a NEET mindset very quickly. Local authorities there have taken to counting the creatures obsessively, knowing that, among other things, NEETs make for ASBO-type behaviour, and ASBO-ism makes property values go down. Friday’s Leamington Observer tells us proudly that the count of NEETs aged 16-19 in Warwickshire is down from 171 to 115 over the last three years. One is tempted to imagine that, if the figure is driven down low enough, they’ll start electronically tagging the individual teen NEETs (note serendipitous palindrome) like zoologists tracking blue-footed boobies.

But the attention is not misplaced, even if you do find yourself cynically hearing a mad little “NEET, NEET, NEET” rhythm as you pass hoodied hooligans on your way to the grocery. A young NEET is socio-economic failure personified; these are people who have left school behind, in disgust or annoyance or despair, and failed to make the crossing-over to productive work.

The NEET count, you’ll notice, is a bit like one of those accounting identities the macroeconomists use in their voodoo. Broadly, it’s population minus workers minus students (and apprentices). It combines youth unemployment with educational exhaustion in one indicator, and an important one, since the harm from early prolonged unemployment is known to persist for decades. The OECD and Statistics Canada are counting NEETs aged 15 to 29—Canada, you’ll be relieved to hear, has relatively few. But in the U.K., they rightly focus more on the teenagers. A 25-year-old woman might be NEET for the perfectly acceptable reason that she is busy starting a family. (So might a man, at that.) If a 15-year-old is in the same condition, that’s not so NEET.

In Britain, the Prince’s Trust observed the new year by releasing a report on teen NEETs, showing that 48 per cent of them felt depressed either “always” or “often.” The natural reaction of the conservative temper is to ask, “Why wouldn’t you be depressed if you don’t have work, you aren’t looking for any, and you aren’t training for any? Hell, who are the other 52 per cent?”

This is not necessarily an unkind query: It does, after all, penetrate to the heart of the problem. Feelings of hopelessness are quite natural without some object, some notion of a better future, to which hope can be credibly fixed. Attaching even a slightly silly-sounding tag like “NEET” to a problem is the first step to addressing it, no matter what combination of carrot and stick we intend to apply.

The tag is bound to be co-opted, as the ASBO stigma was. This has already begun in Japan, where NEETs of the hikikomori shut-in type are regarded as a special problem (one that the otherwise promising “Abenomics” monetary plan has not reduced). The acronym is already so familiar in Japanese that a group of NEETs, led by an idealistic entrepreneur, has put together a corporate start-up called “NEET Inc.” Of course, if they can succeed in agreeing on a business model, the name will, presumably, have to go.


Social failure, embodied in an acronym

  1. I agree with Boris….it’s mostly to do with IQ

  2. I worked for SEU in late 1990s and it was that job which gave me courage and desire to become self employed or work from home. My unit was kids aged 12-13 who were too young to be permanently expelled from school but too much trouble to be left in regular school. Some theorists might hate asbos but the “expert” who was leader of my unit was a fan and she got an asbo taken out on a girl aged 13 I was teaching.

    There were two girls and twelve boys in my little class and then all of a sudden the girl is winding up the boys, challenging their manhoods, saying she was much harder than the weakling boys. Two weeks after my unit head had an asbo on my student, a bunch of my students were caught by police being very naughty because they were trying to get asbos.

    NEETS are not great comparison for Canada because the brits are finished high school when they are 14 or 15 yrs old and here in Ont, at least, kids aren’t even allowed to drop out of school until they are 16. And it is really easy to get hs diploma in Ont now, they don’t fail the numpties anymore, so pretty much everyone stays in school to get diploma at least.

    • School leaving age is 18 in Ontario.

      We need a base level of education….high school is it.

      • In UK, its 16, 17 at the latest. Our kids are not quickly taught as is Europe. For many in UK and Europe, they graduate at 16 and are in apprentice programs by 17.

        I know, I lived in UK, USA and Norway. Our education system is lacking.

        • We score much higher than the UK in education.

          • I am not sure of that, but it doesn’t mater. UK is about to undergo a mini revolution. Scotland is seeking independence and many northern Britain cities are a power keg waiting to go off as the social inequity is now too high.

            Going to happen in Canada too. Social unrest will occur as too many young people are not getting jobs, and were liberally taught everyone can have a Arts, BA, MBA or some other easy consumption job.

            Lot of productive jobs in Canada, just not enough consumption jobs. Not everyone can be a over paid consumption teaching job. Our economics is so far out of whack with realty, Canadian economic failure is inevitable. Its why our currency failed in the last few months that will translate to inflation without raises and devalued pensions for all.

    • You need to get yourself updated i think there lad. I left school in the uk in 1974. That was the last year you could just drop out at 14 and go and be a brickie working with dad or some other member of your family. I can’ imagine there’s a great difference these days between HS graduation here and taking your O and A levels over there.

  3. The ASBO…marvelously satirized and roundly mocked in: The anti social behaviour of Horace Rumpole. Sadly i think both author and actor died before this book could make it onto tv. Wonderful series that managed to mock both left and right; Thatcher and Blair, for their assault on British justice and the rights of man.
    This marked, as much as Iraq, the end of any kind regard i had for Blair. Blair also tried to get hearsay shoehorned in as admissible evidence in court. He may have succeeded for all i know. A f’king diabolical and unforgivable liberty in my opinion, progressive politician or not.

  4. No need to work develops idle time for self pity, excuses and belligerent dependencies. Its no secret as Canada too has the problems.

    We have made tax inflated economies of debt, making peoples incomes devalued to a point where we can’t drive the economy any more. Can’t pay them enough to motivate work as the gross wages are prohibitive, but the net income values and hidden taxes kill the benefit of working….. ends up in this scenario.

    Its a social mess that is going to eventual grow to include a majority, then a revolution. History shows us that when this rot sets in, it almost always fails unless some radical political changes are made to restore the value of working. And that means less, not more government.

    As in essence, modern day taxation has become modern day slavery and the people don’t have the value/money to spend to drive an economy to full employment. Too few getting too much and the majority have become economic slaves of state.

    Roman Empire was never conquered, it fell because government consumption was greater than production society could support. It made the empire rot from the inside out, just like today. Society cannot survive purely on government consumption, lawyers, politicians, buddy bailouts, inflated contracts and union governemtn consumption. We have passed the apex of this societies paradym.

  5. Governments can’t fix the economic problems as it is their excessive consumption causing the problems. People with less value money for taxes spend less on other peoples jobs.

    Simple economics, less for the people, they spend less on other peoples jobs. Fundamental principle of civilization is fair trade of goods and services without some none value added gov taking too much.

    Its why more government doesn’t work. US, UK and Canada have more government consumption than ever before, yet fail to realize more government means less for the people who support the system. Less value in working, and less people spending on other peoples jobs…..but we can wage wars for political power….