‘NEETs’ slow the German machine

After coming up short in an international educational assessment, the country will invest in books and 4,000 schools for students facing challenges. While 71% of young people were in the middle class in the 1980s and 1990s, today, only 61% of millennials make the cut

Young people during a demonstration in Berlin (Germany).Annegret Hilse (Reuters)

TheNEETs,” young people who are “not in employment, education or training,” want more. Three million young German adults between the ages of 20 and 30 aren’t ready for the workplace. One in every five people of that age range have no documented professional training, according to a survey conducted by the German government. This is a serious problem for a high-performing country whose demographics form an inverted pyramid and is currently experiencing a shortage to the tune of millions of specialists. Berlin is concerned that the problem is growing. In the last nine years alone, the number of such unqualified young people has increased by one million.

While the baby boomers close out the professional chapter of their lives, attention has turned to the NEETs, who themselves have few possibilities when it comes to work. In Germany, those without professional training or a degree are at an elevated risk of forming part of the millions who are experiencing long-term unemployment. The NEETs are one of the great dilemmas of the German economy: on the one hand, it needs more specialists; but on the other, it is witnessing the increase of a population that has little or no training. Long based on an educational system held up by two classic pillars (the academic and vocational training), the German economy is struggling to understand why young people terminate 30% of contracts with the companies in which they carry out their professional training (the half of their education that takes place in the workplace). These same companies complain that they can’t find young people with the right profile in a country that does indeed have a lot of work: 1.7 million unfilled positions.

Not all those terminated contracts mean that young people leave professional training. Some of them change career. Nonetheless, Germany can’t get by with this many young people opting out of study and work. According to the Bertelsmann Foundation, there are 630,000 NEETs between the ages of 15 and 24. The majority of them didn’t finish high school; but additionally, many did not find a place in a professional training program. They are, above all, young men whose families come from other countries (the NEET phenomenon affects twice as many of these, as compared to those with German heritage), who have little training, or very young mothers and boys who suffer from issues of mental health and addiction: 50,000 young people drop out of high school every year. Limited or no understanding of the German language is a key negative factor when it comes to that figure.

Berlin now intends to tackle the problem of rising unemployment among young Germans, especially among the NEETs. There are already 353 employment agencies responsible for advising, training and integrating them into the labor market. Work placements are part of the curriculum in secondary schools. In addition, following the disaster of the results of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the government approved the largest training program in its history in February. In Germany, it takes six generations to move up the socioeconomic ladder. It is the OECD country with the highest correlation between family and academic failure. The government’s new Startchancen program will finance a package of initiatives for 4,000 schools for students facing challenges across Germany. The idea is to invest in educational fundamentals because, as Minister of Culture Theresa Schopper of the Green Party says, the early years are key to academic success.

The goal is to create multidisciplinary teams to support schools that have elevated percentages of students who are less socioeconomically privileged. The program is the political reaction to a drop in test scores in languages and mathematics. It comes from the desire to break from “the clear relationship between social providence and academic success that was shown by PISA”; above all, in schools in which up to 80% of students’ native language is not German. The $10.7 billion that has been set aside for the program over the next 10 years for some 4,000 schools in poor neighborhoods will benefit one million students.

Germany is questioning its academic model after its PISA ranking dropped: it came in at 22, ahead of the European Union (24) and Spain (25) in the international comparative study of the cognitive skills of 15-year-olds in mathematics, reading and science. The German economy says it fears for its national competitiveness. The state of Bavaria is calling for reform to offer individualized training, and to concentrate on basic skills, mathematics and language proficiency in primary school. In Bavaria, schools can now teach German instead of English as a foreign language.

Germany invested $193 billion in public education in 2023 (4.7% of GDP, a similar percentage to Spain’s total in 2022). Economic researcher Marcel Fratzscher warns that social mobility has been on the decline for the past 40 years. While 71% of the baby boomers formed part of the middle class in the 1980s and 1990s, today, that is true for only 61% of millennials. The reason may be the increased importance of education in professional life. According to Fratzscher, dropouts reflect growing social polarization. “In no other industrialized country has the middle class shrunk as much as in Germany.”

Detlef Storm, chancellor of a Stuttgart school that has 90% foreign-born students, points out some of the challenges: violence, heterogenous classes at school, and loss of family structure that prevents some children from attending. Schools are asking for more investment in faculty, social workers, and in specialists who can support kids with inclusivity needs. Storm warns that many children from other countries have not previously attended school. In many cases, “we have to convince the parents that school is an institution that will benefit their children.”

Germany has never fallen so far down in the PISA rankings since the study was introduced in 2000. The OECD suggests reasons such as a lack of educational personnel, an increase in gender differences (girls performed better), and the population’s heterogeneity. Then there are the screens: 31% of boys (the OECD average) admit that digital devices distract them from learning. In Finland, that percentage rose to 41%. Schools there introduced digital learning before any other country. As a result, homeschooling worked well during the pandemic. Finland now ranks 17th in the PISA. Finnish linguist and professor of Icelandic grammar Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson is proposing a reduction in working hours so that parents can talk with and read to their children. In Germany, a group of scientists led by neurologist Manfred Spitzer is demanding that schools not introduce digital media until the consequences of such technologies on the child and adolescent brain are well understood.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

Tu suscripción se está usando en otro dispositivo

¿Quieres añadir otro usuario a tu suscripción?

Si continúas leyendo en este dispositivo, no se podrá leer en el otro.

¿Por qué estás viendo esto?


Tu suscripción se está usando en otro dispositivo y solo puedes acceder a EL PAÍS desde un dispositivo a la vez.

Si quieres compartir tu cuenta, cambia tu suscripción a la modalidad Premium, así podrás añadir otro usuario. Cada uno accederá con su propia cuenta de email, lo que os permitirá personalizar vuestra experiencia en EL PAÍS.

En el caso de no saber quién está usando tu cuenta, te recomendamos cambiar tu contraseña aquí.

Si decides continuar compartiendo tu cuenta, este mensaje se mostrará en tu dispositivo y en el de la otra persona que está usando tu cuenta de forma indefinida, afectando a tu experiencia de lectura. Puedes consultar aquí los términos y condiciones de la suscripción digital.

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS