News and Comment

The problems facing NEETs are as much health-related as they are social, and should be as much of a concern to us as they are to them

Wednesday 6 November 2013

The world must be a depressing place for the UK’s one million plus NEETS (young people not in employment, education or training). Known either by the acronym synonymous with economic stagnation, or even less-appealingly, the moniker ‘lost generation’, this group are forever being reminded of the unfavourable nature of their situation.

The most well-known of their problems are typically social in origin: educational under-achievement; long-term unemployment; low aspiration; and social exclusion. But last week, according to Sir Michael Marmot and the WHO, we heard that those who fall into this category are also risking serious, long term damage to their health.

In a report which highlighted the close links between poverty caused by unemployment and the health problems this can bring, Marmot said: “Persistent high levels of the number of young people over 18 not in employment, education or training is storing up a public health time bomb waiting to explode.”

This is perhaps not surprising – social inequality has long since been known as a determiner of ill health. But the recent and explicit link between those who fall into the NEET category and the “public health time-bomb” Sir Michael Marmot refers to, is a timely reminder that the plight of young people not in employment, education or training, is not just a problem for them, but for everyone. After all, public health is called just that because it affects the wider population.

OPM has recently evaluated two large scale initiatives which are designed to help NEETs improve their life chances: National Citizen Service (NCS) – the government’s flagship voluntary programme for young people in England which is intended to “develop the skills and attitude young people need to get more engaged with their communities”; and vInspired’s 24/24 scheme – a structured volunteering and social action intervention project designed to help young people facing challenging circumstances.

The impact of both programmes was impressive – young people that completed the NCS programme have statistically significant improvement to their teamwork, communication and leadership skills, so much so that the Cabinet Office has committed to triple the size of the programme to 90,000 young people by 2014. Meanwhile 90% of vInspired’s 24/24 participants moved into sustained education, employment or training at the end of the programme.

But as the WHO research suggests, the social impact we measured in these projects – which included promoting a more cohesive, responsible and engaged society, and increasing individual capacity and resources to cope in day to day life – may only be one part of the wider number of positive impacts that could also include improvements to participants’ health.

Helping to reduce health inequalities in young people, could be a welcome if unintended consequence of initiatives like vInspired and NCS, but more, clearly, will need to be done if the time-bomb is to be successfully diffused. The ‘NEET problem’ is one of the ‘wicked issues’ of our time. It resists simple categorisation as its effects aren’t just limited to social inequalities, but impinge upon health too – while those affected include far more than the people misfortunate enough to fall into the group.

Research published this summer by the University of York estimates that the life-time public finance cost of young people not in education, employment or training to be between £12 -32.5 billion and 44% higher than costs were estimated at in 2002. Perhaps if the argument in favour of improving public health proves ineffective in galvanising support for action, an argument concerning preservation of public finances may prove more effective.