Young man working at an office desk

High levels of young people not in education, employment or training

The number of young people are not in education, employment, or training (NEET) hit a three-year high at the end of 2023, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The number of young people not in employment, education or training has risen year on year since the Covid-19 pandemic, the data shows.

But what are the possible reasons behind that?

Jones, 25, works in social media marketing, and sells tour-bus tickets on the street as a part-time gig, but he used to be living on benefits in his hometown.

He explained: “Social isolation kept me out of work – it’s easy to get in a pattern of not working and getting used to being on benefits.

“You think that you have so much extra free time, but actually you don’t because you have less motivation.”

Jones worked in various nine-to-five jobs before landing on his current structure of hybrid self and staff employment.

He added: “I don’t like working if it’s not going to benefit me personally, it’s not just about earning money.

“You have more to show for it if it’s more than just money and you can build a business or have fun, otherwise you don’t own anything in the end.

“I still couldn’t do a nine-to-five everyday, I get depressed every time I try. Everyone I meet who works that pattern is depressed, it’s like a living hell.

“If I had the money, I would go to university right now, but it’s only realistic to do that when I’m older and already have an income.”

There’s also a gender impact, with figures of young men not in education, employment, or training consistently similar to but just above women.

Mental health is an often cited factor that may contribute to the likelihood of young people to be out of work or training, but women actually suffer more than men do.

From childhood to early adolescence , boys and girls tend to have similar experiences when it comes to mental health issues, but when they hit 17, rates of probable mental disorder are twice as high for women than men, according to an NHS report.

This doubled impact for women continues until they reach the age of around 25, meaning most of their young adult life is influenced by their high susceptibility to mental ill-health.

In both sexes, mental health issues can begin very early on in life, and the burden of bullying, body image, and financial security weigh heavy on young children.

Similarly, data from The Children’s Society suggests that an astounding 87% of young carers are aged 10-17, with one in eight being younger than 10 years old. 

When young children struggle with mental health and caring responsibilities, it seems inevitable that those struggles should translate to exacerbated mental health and difficulty managing responsibilities as they become young adults.

But there are also cultural reasons why young people feel less motivated by education and the job market it leads to.

Charlie, 22, is currently an architectural assistant on the work placement year of his architecture degree, where he follows the eight-hour, five-day work week structure.

Charlie said: “My main qualms are that it’s repetitive and boring.

“You do the same things day-in day-out and there’s not really much scope to do anything creative or self-led.

“You can’t do something on a whim, or something you just want to do.

“Also, it’s very computer based – I’d like to not be on a computer all the time.”

Similarly to Jones, Charlie told me that it becomes exciting when there’s a sense of personal achievement, or stimulating social interaction.

Charlie added: “I don’t mind working for people because I really like working with people and I wouldn’t want to do it on my own, I wouldn’t achieve as much. I just want more responsibility.

“A lot of people at my company work from home, I would prefer it if they came in more often because if you’re in a place for eight hours a day, then you need the social aspect.”

Charlie cites mental ill health as a definite strain on motivation, but he finds that working well improves his mental state, as long as he’s proud of and stimulated by the project.

He said: “If I feel down, being busy and productive is what makes me feel better, but doing something that doesn’t hold any meaning is what makes it worse, so I need other motivations at work like the social aspect, like the fun, like achieving something.

“Coming into an established work environment, you can tell that it’s not been put together by young people, it makes sense for older people and works in their favour and – fair enough – I could do this in 20 years, but if people my age put together the company, I might enjoy working there.”

Instead of asking why young people are deviating from education and employment structures, perhaps we should ask what those structures are failing to do for young people who are just as motivated by enjoyment, socialisation, and achievement as they always were.

Featured image credit: Matt Moloney

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