Article: (Un)Happy 21st Birthday NEET! A genealogical approach to understanding young people Not in Education, Employment or Training

Author: Liam Wrigley | Tags: , , , , , , ,

The term ‘NEET’ (Not in Education, Employment or Training) in the UK has become a contentious issue for policy makers, youth services, academia and government alike. In this article, Liam Wrigley offers a genealogical appraisal of how 'NEET' has impacted on young people’s services, governance and portrayal of youth in the 21 years the term has been used in policy rhetoric. In particular, he uses evidence from the ‘Bridging The Gap’ (1999) report, which provided a blueprint for 'NEET' interventions and services in the UK, in order to highlight a disjuncture between contemporary and previous modes of governing young people who fall outside the labour market, education and training.


The policy term ‘NEET’ celebrates a milestone ‘21st birthday’ in 2020. NEET became streamlined into young people’s policy rhetoric in 1999. The term was originally created by Istance et al (1994) to describe young people in South Glamorgan who had fallen outside the labour market and education. Since then, the NEET label has become a key concern in: media discourse, social welfare, academia and globalised policy concerning young people.  With the label NEET have also come various strategies and guises at ‘tackling’ the problem of young people aged 16-24 who fall outside education, employment or training. Many of these approaches have been adopted into the ongoing debate surrounding young people’s transition into employment and education, despite varying degrees of success and failure. This article uses a genealogical approach to critically question and investigate historical and practical conditions from which NEET emerged as a policy discourse. Using examples from recent history such as the ‘Bridging the Gap’ (1999) report and the creation of the ‘Social Exclusion Unit’ in 1997, the genealogical method, as advocated by Foucault (1998) and others, will expose how young people identified as NEET have been reconstructed as agents of self-action and self-management to become self-governing citizens through the ideological sham of social exclusion and social mobility in an austerity era. Using the genealogical method, this article will investigate the historical and practical conditions in which this mode of governing young people occurred and how NEET policy responses have developed over the last 21 years.

What is the genealogical method?

Genealogy is grey, meticulous and patiently documentary (Foucault, 1982, in Rabinow, 1984: 76)

[…] that which has been scratched over and copied many times (Foucault, 1998: 369).

Despite the linguistic anxieties and confusion a genealogical appraisal poses, this particular method has been utilised in order to go beyond a typical historical narrative regarding NEET young people. Often the accepted narrative of NEET is one of highlighting the pitfalls of neoliberalism and successive failures of policy and practices, and more recently, the impact of austerity measures on public services since the global financial crash of 2008. In order to understand such developments, Tony Taylor et al (2018: 85) have suggested that:

neoliberalism seems a broken economic model […] neoliberal ideology is instrumental and reductive, deeply suspicious of critical thinking. Teachers teach to test, lecturers cram consumers […] youth workers are led by outcomes.

When we look back to the historical lineage of young people outside education and the labour market, there is often a desire to point out the ‘golden-age’ of youth transitions from the post war era to 1970s (Roberts, 2004), as a method of comparison to the more recent delayed transitions of NEET young people. Traditionally, the transition to adulthood was more linear, i.e. industrial apprenticeships had healthy investment by potential employers and the labour movement was alive and well (Willis, 1977; Furlong, 2006; Harvey, 2005). Various youth employment education schemes have followed in the ‘neoliberal’ era, including: The Youth Opportunities Programme (YOP), Youth Training Scheme (YTS), Youth Training (YT) and the Restart Programme. All of these schemes have been critiqued due to the lack of secure employment and training for young people, problematic in creating aggressive masculinised workforces and the lack of guaranteed work, once these various schemes have been completed (Simmons et al, 2014; Roberts, 2018).

The early 1990s marked an unacknowledged break in the history of young people outside the labour market. After the ‘Restart’ scheme ended, an alternative mode of governing young people who fell outside the labour market and education became apparent. The embracing of ‘deficit’ labels regarding young people was arguably a huge transformation in how young people were perceived by government, policy makers and media discourse which culminated in the mid-1990s with ‘StatusZero’ being used – a status that described young people as ‘Zero’ due to not being in education, employment or training. This was eventually changed to ‘NEET’ by recommendations from Istance et al’s (1994) study, which was adopted into the Social Exclusion Unit’s founding policy recommendations in 1997 by New Labour.

Foucault (1998) argues that the task of the genealogist is to doubt the commonplace assumptions and to query what we have accepted as knowledge, because as soon as this accepted knowledge becomes what we know as ‘truth’ it loses its evidence and becomes part of the status-quo.  Instead of attempting to trace origins of history, the genealogical method places emphasis on the process of ‘Descent and Emergence’ (Foucault, 1977, 1998). Descent is described by Foucault (1977) as a set of practices leading to a sequence of events, explaining that:

To follow the complex course of descent is to maintain passing events in their proper dispersion; it is to identify the accidents, the minute deviations—or conversely, the complete reversals—the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that gave birth to these things that continue to exist and have value for us. (Foucault, 1977: 146)

In contrast, emergence is described by Foucault (1977: 149–150) as ‘the entry of forces; it is their eruption, the leap from the wings to centre stage, each in its youthful strength’. In particular, this article focuses on the process of ‘descent’, i.e. critically questioning the events, false appraisals and faulty calculations from which NEET was borne into popular policy discourse. Examining the processes of descent and emergence demonstrates how NEET has been amalgamated into various policy responses regarding crime, welfare and the ‘moral character’ of youth who fall outside employment, education and training (Nayak, 2015; Reynolds, 2005; Gillies, 2016).

As we can see from the genealogical turn, pre-emptive labelling of young people as ‘Zero’ and eventually ‘NEET’ has created a discourse which blames and highlights the faults of young people (Gillies, 2016). Whether this is an intended or unintended consequence of the neoliberal rule is another argument. Yet, if we are to look at NEET as an event or a singularity it is clear to see that this mode of governing young people has become part of the status-quo in UK policy and globally, with EU countries and the global south using the NEET label to report on young people outside the labour market and education. More threatening is the perception of young people who are NEET becoming a focus of deficit (see Nayak, 2015; MacDonald, 2011; Ryan and Lőrinc, 2018), instead of focusing on providing training and education – which the previous ‘scheme’ era of youth training programmes promised to deliver. As others have argued:

NEETS are relentlessly being encouraged to become EETs through such initiatives as school exclusion projects, accreditation of informal learning […] and many more […] there is little room for discussion of alternative, more creative and fulfilling uses of time than those provided by paid employment. (Batsleer, 2008: 34)

The following analysis of the ‘Bridging the Gap’ report (1999), will demonstrate how NEET came into character as a policy discourse in order to investigate the historical and practical conditions in which this mode of governing young people outside employment, education and training occurred. In this instance, the role of the genealogist is to articulate given problems and re-appraisals of evidences to let the reader make their own informed decision about the historical subject matter presented (Foucault, 1977). However, the genealogist does not take the problem and come up with supposed solutions (Koopman, 2013: 1).

Still Bridging the Gap? The case of NEET young people

The Bridging the Gap report was the first attempt by the newly formed Social Exclusion Unit at responding to the social problems of unemployment and education failure. Young people who had been identified as socially excluded were to be placed on a variety of pathways that aimed to tackle what New Labour had identified as ‘social ills’ that disproportionately affected young people aged 16-18 such as crime, anti-social behaviour, truanting from school, substance misuse and neighbourhood/community based issues (Social Exclusion Unit, 1999). The report set a template for how social exclusion occurs and who it affects, which excessively focused on young people’s entitlement to social welfare and privatised organisations that could best deliver services that focused on the transition towards education, employment or training. In the report, New Labour leader Tony Blair argued for various strategies that aimed to ‘tackle’ social exclusion, suggesting that:

The best defence against social exclusion is to have a job […] the best way to get a job is to have a good education, with the right training […] The young people involved are disproportionately from poor backgrounds in deprived areas […] social exclusion in later life is disproportionately the result. They [NEETs] are much more likely to be unemployed, dependent on benefits, to live in unstable family structures and to be depressed about their lives. (Social Exclusion Unit, 1999: 6-8)

From this, it can be seen that the remedies for social exclusion consisted of targeted intervention for young people from economically marginalised backgrounds. Another key assumption from the Bridging the Gap (1999) report was the assertion that young people who suffer from social exclusion have ‘unstable family structures’ and are ‘unemployed [and] dependent on benefits’ (ibid.). Social exclusion in this instance points towards a plethora of negative and stigmatising attributes of young people, with the label NEET also focusing on the deficits of youth. Ruth Levitas (2005) argues, in the case of Bridging the Gap, the term ‘social exclusion’ is intrinsically problematic, as it represents an included majority that draws the focus away from issues of inequality. Instead, social exclusion in this case frames issues of inequality and poverty as ‘pathological and residual’ characteristics of NEET young people rather than an endemic problem of society (ibid.: 7). Moreover, Levitas (2005) suggests that social exclusion is embedded into various social policy discourses which have made this perception of young people possible. In particular, she draws attention to a ‘Moral Underclass Discourse’ (MUD) that centres on the moral and behavioural delinquency of those who are highlighted as being social excluded. Images such as unemployed young people being involved in crime, early parenthood, and NEET youth being cast off as ‘chavs’ (Nayak, 2015), all form part of the MUD discourse which portrays NEET young people as dangerous political objects, which need to be held accountable, controlled and subject to intervention.

The Bridging the Gap report was seen as an attempt at getting socially excluded young people into employment, education and training. NEET young people’s social mobility became widely discussed in New Labour policy literature. The Bridging the Gap report proposed a variety of pathways and services aimed at creating socially mobile citizens, the changes introduced by the creation of the Social Exclusion Unit in 1997 and the report included intervention strategies such as:

  • Proposal (iii) financial support for individuals: This included the introduction of an Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), as an incentive for young people from low-economic status families to participate in 16-18 education.
  • Proposal (iv) New support service: A new advice service regulated by government was to be installed in schools for young people aged 13-19. The service branded ‘Connexions’ became a ‘one-stop-shop’ for young people to access careers advice and wellbeing services.

Strategies employed to reduce the risk of becoming NEET under the fascia of social exclusion and mobility marked the next 10 years of the New Labour administration.  MacDonald and Shildrick (2010) summarised that social mobility strategies identified under the Social Exclusion Unit included the following:

  • Guidance and training for NEET young people.
  • Attempts to raise the qualifications of NEET young people to make them more appealing to potential employers.
  • Attempts at raising the participation age of education to 18 and financial incentives to support this.

Despite the investment and developments Bridging the Gap (1999) promised, the way it was delivered has been widely criticised. Diane Reay (2017) has suggested that social mobility discourses like that of NEET come with a ‘neoliberal vocabulary’ of aspiration and efficiency, which is effectively an ignorance of the structural disadvantage that young people face. Reay (2017: 102) continues with ‘Social Mobility is a political discourse that has always been seen in straightforwardly positive ways’, hence the working class and disproportionate numbers of NEET young people will always be disadvantaged due to their lack of access to privileged social networks. It evidently becomes the case that young people who experience being NEET are made individually responsible for educational success but lack the capital or resources to achieve it (Ryan et al, 2019).

Under the Coalition and Conservative rule (2010-), widespread ‘austerity’ cutbacks to public services have appeared to triumph the neoliberal rule that has saturated policy regarding young people and adult education (Duckworth and Smith, 2019).  Austerity measures are framed to compel government to pull back public spending on services as an economic necessity (Nayak, 2015). In the case of young people not in education, employment or training, austerity has been used as a guise to starve young people of centrally funded support services and replace them with localised agendas and devolved powers to communities that come with so called ‘economic freedoms’, without any of the central government funding that the neoliberal rule was meant to promise and promote (Youdell and McGimpsey, 2015). The collapse of the Social Exclusion Unit in 2010 led to the complete reversal of some of the interventions introduced by the New Labour government. All the actions stemming from the Bridging the Gap report were effectively reversed within the first two years of the Coalition rule. A prime example of austerity measures to young people’s services is the collapse of ‘Connexions’ and the Coalition and successive Conservative governments have replaced such services with localised/third sector initiatives that have been conceived through austerity (see Wrigley, 2017; de St Croix, 2016). More worryingly, further complications will arise from future withdrawal of EU social mobility funding as a result of ‘Brexit’ – which will inevitability leave large funding sinkholes in the philanthropic, third-sector and community tripartite arrangements that have supported NEET young people in the absence of intervention from the Conservative government.

(Un)Happy 21st Birthday NEET: What has the genealogy revealed?

In commemoration of the 21st birthday of ‘NEET’, this article has attempted to engage with a genealogical appraisal of how NEET came into being through the creation of the Social Exclusion Unit. Under the influence of Foucauldian thought, this article has isolated the role of the Bridging the Gap (1999) report and provided a template for how social exclusion and mobility is unfairly packaged for NEET young people. It has not been the purpose of this article to suggest alternatives or supposed solutions for young people’s NEET experiences, but to articulate given problems and contentions with previous NEET policy thinking. This article has highlighted that in light of NEET’s upcoming 21st Birthday, serious thought needs to be given towards how social mobility and exclusion is packaged, and how aggressive neoliberalist and austerity measures towards young people’s services have (negatively) radically reshaped how we think about young people not in education, employment or training.

Happy 21st Birthday NEET!

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Last Updated: 16 October 2019


With thanks to (in no particular order) Dr Andrea Wigfield, Prof Louise Ryan, Dr Joanne Britton, Dr Julie Walsh, Prof Vicky Duckworth (Edge Hill University), Dr Steven Roberts (Monash University, Australia) & Dr Lisa Russell (University of Huddersfield).

Further thanks to Dr Tania de St Croix and Dr Naomi Thompson at Youth & Policy Journal for considering this article, and the thought provoking debate from Mae Shaw and Prof Sarah Banks at Youth & Policy: Then and Now (2018).

To my mum Sharon, a working-class woman from the estate who came back into education aged 40 and has never given up hope. You are an inspiration to all of us.



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Liam Wrigley is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield.