264,000 women aged 16 to 24 in the UK are economically inactive (not working or currently able to look for work) and not in education or training – 37,000 more than men . By looking through the lens of young women’s lived experiences, the second year of this research has explored what it is like to be labelled ‘NEET and economically inactive’. Young people in the NEET and economically inactive (EI) group are not included in the unemployment statistics because they are ‘not actively seeking work’ due to their caring responsibilities and/or ill health. The study was undertaken by Professor Sue Maguire, in partnership with Young Women’s Trust and co-funded by the Barrow Cadbury Trust. The research comprised in-depth interviews with 57 young women, aged 16-25, across 9 localities in England between March and June 2017. In addition, analysis of data from Understanding Society was undertaken by the University of Essex.

The qualitative interviews with young women provided an illuminating insight into their world. Their day-to-day lives differed significantly according to four key factors - their:

  • reason for being EI – e.g. motherhood, caring responsibilities, physical or mental health problems
  • household composition – whether living with a child/ren, alone, with parent(s) or with a partner
  • entitlement to welfare support
  • support networks - notably, parent(s), partner, professional adviser or none at all.

An overarching finding from the research was the extent to which many young women faced multiple barriers. For example, while a young woman may be in receipt of welfare support for caring for a child, this often sat alongside problems with depression and anxiety, and/or caring for other family members. That is to say, while their EI status may have been attributed to one factor, other recognised ‘causes’ or consequences were also present.

The majority of young women relied heavily on their family for practical, financial and emotional support – most were living with or near their close family network. Among those who were independent from family support, the ability to establish and sustain a positive relationship with a key professional, such as a youth worker, a social worker or a community psychiatric nurse (CPN), was crucial in helping them navigate their way through welfare entitlements, housing issues and day-to-day living. Beyond the confines of family and/or professional support, young women were often devoid of wider social contact, with limited friendship networks and social activities, and lacking the means to travel.

Somewhat contrary to conventional wisdom, most young women in the sample had academic and/or vocational qualifications, with the majority having undertaken post-16 provision. However, what remains disturbing is the extent to which they were unable to build on their qualification base to progress into higher level educational provision or good quality and sustainable training and employment opportunities. Many had ‘churned’ between Level 1 and Level 2 education and training provision with a range of providers, including schools, FE colleges, as well as third sector and private training organisations. While this lack of progression could be attributed to the disruption caused by an unexpected pregnancy, child care responsibilities or health issues, the lack of opportunity for many young women to access independent guidance and support, as well as secure ‘small steps’ or pathways towards economic and social independence, is a powerful finding.

Other key features of these young women’s lives were their limited finances and reliance on welfare and/or family support. In particular, some found it a real struggle to make or change benefit claims, and, consequently, faced financial turbulence and insecurity. A common cause of such disruption was when switching benefit claims as a result of changes in personal circumstances or new types of welfare support, such as Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Universal Credit (UC), being introduced. Financial difficulties were also acute when young women lived alone and/or were lone parents.

Coupled with financial hardship, the evidence presented in the first-year report about young women who are NEET and EI being isolated, disconnected and hard to reach was reinforced in these interviews. Their dependence on small family networks within confined communities, with little access to external support, was confirmed. In addition, low levels of self-worth and self-esteem were commonplace. To these young women, particularly those with children, their ability to navigate their way back into the world of work faced daunting obstacles, notably:

  • their lack of self-confidence
  • the challenges of securing and funding reliable childcare and
  • finding employment in local economies where opportunity structures appeared to be stacked against them.

On a positive note, while young women included in the study were confronted with considerable challenges and barriers, the overwhelming majority did not lack personal ambition or a willingness to change their circumstances in the future.

The quantitative results reinforced existing evidence that parenthood has a massive impact on the propensity of young women to become EI, whereas for men who have fathered a child in the past year with men who have not, there is no statistical difference. The analysis also demonstrated how mental illness poses an equal risk to both sexes, in terms of heightening their chances of becoming EI. Additionally, while high educational attainment acts as a buffer to young people’s risk of becoming EI, the likelihood remains a lot higher among young women, regardless of their qualification level.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including:

  • Providing one-to-one personalised support to young women to help them with their next steps, notably finding work
  • Reducing the time taken to process welfare claims, such as Universal Credit
  • Including investment in jobs and skills for young women in the Industrial Strategy. This should offer flexible working hours and better pay, as well as affordable and adaptable childcare to help women become economically active
  • Calling for urgent attention to address the alarming number of young women (and young men) who are in the NEET and EI category due to anxiety and depression, and whose mental ill health is exacerbated by being NEET
  • Extending the 30 hours of free childcare to people on zero hours contracts, apprentices and students, and
  • Ensuring that European Social Fund (ESF) provision that currently supports local employment initiatives is replaced with central government funding.

Sue Maguire, Honorary Professor at the Institute for Policy Research, who carried out the research in partnership with Young Women’s Trust, said:

‘This research shines a light on the lives of young women who are defined as NEET and EI – through their own words and experiences it offers a damning critique of a system which appears to view them as a ‘problem’, rather than recognising their resilience and abilities. Despite most young women possessing decent qualifications and having future aspirations for obtaining jobs, too often they are locked into long-term economic and social disengagement because of their caring responsibilities and/or ill health. Mental health issues loom large among this group, together with a lack of money and financial independence. Youth poverty was particularly prevalent among young mothers and those living alone.

Government must act to address the needs of this neglected group of young people – first and foremost by the creation of accessible, flexible and high-quality training and work opportunities in their localities, together with personalised support/mentorship provided by services which are targeted at meeting young people’s needs.’

Young Women’s Trust Chief Executive Dr Carole Easton OBE said:

“Young women are telling us they want to work but they are getting shut out of the jobs market in their hundreds of thousands. Having children, having poor mental health and a lack of suitable jobs seem to be having a bigger impact on women’s work than on men’s. While the Government focuses on reducing its unemployment figures, over a quarter of a million young women who are not included in the numbers are being forgotten.

The report recommends support and mentoring to help ease young women’s transition back into the world of work, a commitment to invest in jobs and skills for women in the Government’s Industrial Strategy, due to be published soon, access to affordable childcare, and reducing the time taken to process welfare claims.

Giving young women the support they need to find work will not only help them to become financially independent but will benefit businesses and the economy too.”