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.