Last week we (NICEC) held a very interesting seminar on youth unemployment at the University of Derby. Jo Hutchinson (iCeGS, University of Derby) kicked things off with a discussion of how the Coalition’s policy around NEETs was developing and how it might differ from Labour’s policy. Kelly Kettlewell and Eleanor Stevens (NFER) then discussed the research that they are undertaking which is examining the interventions that schools can make to prevent NEET. Finally John Goodwin and Henrietta O’Connor (CLMS, University of Leicester) provided a historic perspective by contrasting the current period of youth unemployment with the 1980s.
There were a lot of interesting points made during the seminar, but what came through most strongly to me was the need to double check your assumptions when you are looking at NEETs. John and Henrietta pointed out that much of the current media scaremongering about the “lost generation” echoes identical claims made during the 1980s. Difficult transitions do not necessarily result in the permanent loss of the individual from the labour market. Jo, presented figures that demonstrated that the recession was having a fairly minimal impact on the overall numbers of NEET young people. Finally Kelly and Eleanor argued that many young people who are NEET did not under-achieve at school and are therefore very difficult to identify before they reach the point of being NEET.
Many of the speakers also highlighted the fact that “NEETs” were not a distinct species set apart from other young people. Rather, it is important to recognise that NEET is (for most) a temporary status rather than a permanent condition. The experience of being NEET is actually typified by a high degree of churn and of moving in and out of the labour market. John and Henrietta referred to this as precariousness and to the group of people whose labour market experience is like this as the precariat. They also pointed out that this precariousness is a far more accurate picture of unemployment than much rhetoric about inter-generational and long-term unemployment (which is fairly rare).
One of the problems that struck me was that much policy is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of NEET. Some very broad truths (NEET levels are rising, poor attainment leads to NEET, NEET leads to lifetime unemployment, NEET correlates with crime and anti-social behaviour) have been transformed into absolute rules and accompanied by a media-fueled moral panic which seeks to demonise young people and locate the blame for wider social problems with them. In reality the picture relating to NEET is more complex and requires more subtle handling.
My feeling was that the approach that has been adopted to NEET for the last decade or more has been excessively focused on the idea of targeting and “finding the NEETs”. The current development of Risk of NEET Indicators (RONIs) is just a recent example of this idea that it is possible to diagnose NEETness and root it out before it takes hold. All of this targeting has the unspoken assumption that once someone drops out of the labour market or learning market they are lost for ever. I can’t help thinking that a more universal approach whereby all young people were supported to make transitions, where there was less panic about periods of churn and where there was considerably more support and opportunities for people to re-engage with the learning and labour markets once they had fallen out of the system, might just be more effective.
Anyway, enough of my ramblings. Far more considered opinions on these matters can be found in the publications written by the speakers at the event. Some good starting places for these include:
Goodwin, J. and O’Connor, H. (2007). Continuity and Change in Forty Years of School to-Work Transition. International Journal of Lifelong Education 26(5): 555-572.
Goodwin, J. and O’Connor, H. (2009) Whatever Happened to the Young Workers? Journal of Education and Work (Special Issue: Continuity and Change in 40 Years of School to Work Transitions) 22(5): 417-431.
Goodwin, J. and O’Connor, H. (2013) Ordinary Lives: ‘Typical Stories’ of Girls’ Transitions in the 1960s and the 1980s. Sociological Research Online, 18(1)4.
Filmer-Sankey, C., & McCrone, T. (2012). Developing indicators for early identification of young people at risk of temporary disconnection from learning. Slough: NFER.
Hutchinson, J. (2012). Teenage Mothers and Family Career Planning. Derby: International Centre for Guidance Studies (iCeGS), University of Derby.
Hutchinson, J., Korzeniewski, R. and Moore, N. (2011). Career Learning Journeys of Derby and Derbyshire NEETs. Derby: International Centre for Guidance Studies, University of Derby.
O’Connor, H. and Goodwin, J. (2007). Continuity and change in the experiences of transition from school to work. International Journal of Lifelong Education (Special Issue: Transitions from Education to Work) 26(5): 555-572.
Spielhofer, T., Benton, T., Evans, K., Featherstone, G., Golden, S., Nelson, J., & Smith, P. (2009). Increasing Participation: Understanding Young People Who Do Not Participate in Education or Training at 16 and 17 (DCSF Research Report 072). London: DCFS.
Spielhofer, T., Golden, S., Evans, K., Marshall, H., Mundy, E., Pomati, M. and Styles, B. (2010) Barriers to Participation in Education and Training (Department for Education Research Report 009). London: DfE.