Spain continues to be one of the European countries with the highest percentage of people between the ages of 18 and 24 who are neither in employment nor in education or training – a group known as NEETS or ninis in Spain, after the Spanish phrase ni estudia ni trabaja. A total of 19.9% of youths fell into this category in 2020, according to the report Education at a Glance 2021, presented on Thursday by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OCDE). Only Italy, with 24.8%, recorded a higher share of young people who neither work nor study. Greece, with 19.3%, came in third place.
According to experts, the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on education and the labor market may have contributed to why Spain has fallen so far behind other European countries, such as Germany, Norway and Sweden, where the percentage of NEETs is less than 10%.
“The pandemic destroyed many of the jobs that young people can easily access without needing training, particularly in the services sector,” says Nacho Sequeira, the managing director of Fundación Exit (Exit Foundation), which is dedicated to helping vulnerable youngsters join the workforce.
“The labor market is very polarized. In it, there are highly trained people in sectors such as technology, while those in a more difficult situation are condemned to temporary work and to constantly losing their job. This has intensified with the pandemic,” he adds.
With respect to education, youngsters in Spain have had the added difficulty of studying remotely, as the pandemic forced classes to go online. This proved especially challenging for those who had problems accessing the internet or who did not have digital devices.
For years, the percentage of young people in Spain who neither work nor study had been falling, but this changed in 2020 – a trend that was seen across OECD countries. The rate fell from 23.2% in 2016, to 20.9% in 2017, 20.2% in 2018 and 19.7% in 2019, then rose to 19.9% in 2020. Meanwhile, the average for OECD countries went from 15.8% in 2016 to 14.1% in 2019, then likewise rose in 2020, to 14.6%.
The OECD report differentiates between young people who are unemployed but are actively looking for work, and those who are inactive: neither in education nor seeking employment. In Spain, the latter represent 46% of all NEETs. Taking the entire 18-24 age group in Spain into account, they represent 9.2%, compared to the OECD average of 9.3% and European Union average of 7.7%. The countries with the smallest percentage of inactive NEETs are Sweden (5%), Germany (5.3%) and The Netherlands (5.5%).
In many OECD countries, the large majority of young men are unemployed, while most women are inactive. The same is true of Spain: 50.1% of NEET women are inactive while 42.7% of NEET men are unemployed.
Félix Navarro, 21, is unemployed but does not like to be tagged as a NEET. He only completed secondary school and his last job as an usher at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona lasted just six hours. “I don’t feel like [a NEET] because I am actively looking for work 24 hours a day, I look in different apps and even submit applications at companies that I like,” he says, adding that he thinks it is unfair that young people who do not want to live with their parents or on unemployment benefits are put in this category.
A study from the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofund) found that 90% of young people who neither work nor study because they are looking after children or the elderly are women, who may for several years find themselves unable to juggle care with work or studies. This is the case of Kassandra, 27, who became a mother last year in the middle of the pandemic. She trained as an emergency worker, but never made it to an ambulance. Instead, she worked as a supermarket cashier, carer and in clerical positions, all “very unstable,” jobs she said. Without realizing it, she became a NEET: she was not actively looking for work, nor did she have the energy to study. Last summer, she resumed her job search, but the positions on offer involved shift and weekend work, and her priority was caring for her child. “Now I can’t accept just anything and that is making it even harder to find work,” she explains.
According to Gara Rojas, a researcher at the OECD, in the years prior to the 2008 financial crisis, the data suggested that youngsters in Spain were deciding not to continue their education in order to get a job that did not require a degree. “This message is no longer true, and we have to look for other causes and above all make sure the message on the importance of youngsters not giving up their studies gets through,” he explains.
Rojas believes that the high number of students who get held back a year may also play a role in the NEET trend. In 2019, Spain was the country with the highest percentage of repeaters in high school, 8.7%, followed by Belgium and Portugal, with around 7%. Rojas says research on the issue suggests that repeating a grade “brings with it risks in terms of equality and can even have a negative impact on the self-esteem of students.” “In the long term, students who repeat could have worse performance, and, as a result, the likelihood of them abandoning their studies could increase.”
Schools closed for 45 days
In 2020, primary and secondary schools in Spain remained closed for 45 days due to the pandemic. While schools were shut down for fewer days in Luxembourg, New Zealand, Norway and the Netherlands, the OECD average is 78 for primary school, 92 for the first half of secondary school (the equivalent of the ESO in Spain) and 101 for the second half (post-16 education comparable to British A-levels or the International Baccalaureate).
English version by Melissa Kitson.