Economy Social Issues

Unemployment: The Neets, a generation in need

28 November 2012
Trouw Amsterdam

Bologna University students at Piazza Santo Stefano.
Bologna University students at Piazza Santo Stefano.

Fourteen million European young people are neither working nor in school. Their number is growing because of the economic crisis, with disparities according to the countries. Sociologists worry of the social and health consequences of this phenomenon.

A long-term unemployed youth in Naples, a teenage mother in Sachsen-Anhalt, a high school drop-out in Lelystad and a depressed couch potato in Vilnius: All vulnerable young people far removed from the labour market. Due to the continuing economic crisis they are ending up even further removed from working Europe.

"The figures on increasing youth unemployment are shocking. But in the calculations, we generally only count the young people who are ready to work and who want to work. There is also an enormous group which is so demotivated that they are turning away from the labour market," says Massimiliano Mascherini of the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, an agency of the EU, on the phone. He studied young people who are neither working, nor following education or training (also called "Neets"). He looked at the background and the behaviour of these “couch potatoes” and what they are costing Europe.

The results are worrying. Fourteen million young people sitting at home doing nothing in Europe. This constitutes 15.4 per cent of young people aged 15 to 29. Some are unemployed through their own choice or are travelling, but the majority are not. "They have little faith in institutions and their fellow man. They are socially and politically isolated. They also have a bigger chance of ending up mixing in criminal circles," says Mascherini.

Disabilities and troubled homes

Brussels is closely monitoring developments relating to Neets with concern, as the issue is costly. Mascherini calculates that youth unemployment cost member states €153 billion in 2011, while the figure was only €119 billion in 2008. And this is just a conservative estimate, including only the cost of social services, not things such as crime and healthcare.

Ton Eimers, director of the Knowledge Centre for Professional Education and the Labour Market (KBA) knows the problem group well. "They are often young people with a disability, learning problems and/or a troubled home situation." The Nijmegen-based sociologist praises the study. "It describes high school drop-outs and the unemployed as expressions of the same type of problem: young people who are at risk of losing their connection with society. In times of crisis, this group’s problems increase."

What is striking is that the young people in various parts of Europe respond to their situation differently. In the Anglo-Saxon countries and Central and Eastern Europe, the Neets are passive. They are disappointed in society and institutions and have the feeling that no one wants to help them. The response to this is that they turn away from society. The group finds politics less important, and a large number do not vote. Sitting in front of the TV, social isolation and loneliness are the key words.

Politically active youth

In the Mediterranean countries, on the other hand, the problem category is politically active. "There is a good reason why young people take to the streets in Spain and Greece,” says Mascherini. “They do not feel that their interests are represented by the politicians and are protesting against this. They tend to lean toward radicalism. If an extremist block arises in these countries, there is a great risk that it will find a lot of support among these young people."

Although Spain is always mentioned as the country with the greatest unemployment, the situation in Italy and Bulgaria is more worrying, says Mascherini. "Spaniards have a relatively good education and a lot of work experience. Youth unemployment there is a direct consequence of the crisis. The problems in Bulgaria and Italy are more structural in nature. The education and training does not meet the demands of the market. In Italy, young people have been sitting around at home for years, which makes the situation more urgent."

Eimers prefers to explain the difference between passive and active dissatisfaction in a different way. "I think that frustration is more likely to turn to anger in southern Europe because the numbers are greater. If all of a sudden Nijmegen saw a youth unemployment rate of 40 per cent, the youth here would be on the barricades too. But if you are one of a small group, you are more likely to stay at home feeling ashamed."

According to the study, the only region in Europe where the Neets will not run amok is Scandinavia. "In those countries all young people are equally involved in society and politics, unemployed or not, school drop-out or not,” says Mascherini. “Countries like Sweden and Denmark are doing well anyway. There is hardly a gap between training and the labour market. The contrast with Bulgaria and Italy could not be greater."

Drugs trade and teen mothers

And the Netherlands? Mascherini believes it is an exemplary country. "Few structural problems, many projects and good supervision, even if the number of problem cases is increasing due to the crisis".

Hennie van Meerkerk thinks this picture is too rosy. She is the chairwoman of the board of directors of Scalda, a vocational training school in Zeeland for former high school drop-outs who are unemployed, and describes a new category of young people with multiple problems. "Many have psychological problems, suffer from depression and often come into contact with the police."

Criminality is a justified concern, according to Mascherini. His study shows that these young people are susceptible to falling victim to drug and alcohol problems. "This can be both a cause of dropping out of school or unemployment, or a result of dropping out of school or unemployment. Young people who sit around at home for a long time often become depressed, leading to alcohol and drug addictions. Through their drug addiction many of them end up in the drugs trade. Girls often become teenage mothers."

Van Meerkerk: "Hardly any permanent jobs are available. It is precisely those young people who cannot express themselves well or who had a troubled youth who suffer the most." Eimers confirms this. "The number may not be as high as in Spain or Italy, but the hard core of our problem youths is growing as a result of the crisis and you can foresee the problems they will have at work, when they are still in school. There should be better cooperation between local authorities, benefits agencies and organisations responsible for compulsory school attendance. You cannot wait until it goes wrong."

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