1 in 5 young people around the world are NEETs. What are NEETs?

illustration of people sitting down
Illustration by Elizabeth Sokolich


Posted February 15, 2024 | Updated on Apr 04, 2024

In short: From the United Kingdom to China, youth unemployment has long been a concern. But across the world there is also a growing number of young people who aren’t in school, don’t have a job, and aren’t in any sort of vocational training. These young people are considered NEET – not in employment, education, or training. There are many factors that could cause a young person to become NEET, from gender-based restrictions on schooling to the high cost of living in communities where jobs and schools exist. According to a recent U.K. survey, half of young people who are NEET feel “hopeless about their future.”   

What is a NEET?

NEET is an acronym meaning “not in employment, education, or training,” first used by researchers in the United Kingdom in the 1980s. According to author Massimiliano Mascherini of Eurofound, the term was adopted in 2010 as a trend indicator by the European Commission Employment Committee, and that's when the term – and what it represented – entered the public debate.

The category includes individuals who would traditionally be counted in a country’s unemployment numbers, such as those who are unemployed but looking for work, but it also applies to those who have stopped applying for jobs.

More than a fifth of people worldwide between the ages of 15 and 24 years old – 21.7% – were considered NEETs in 2023, according to the International Labour Organization.

Vice recently asked several young NEETs what prompted them to stop their employment search.

“After graduating high school, I started an apprenticeship in a warehouse of a car manufacturer, but it was so terrible I had to quit,” one person told Vice. “I wasn't treated like a human being there, more like a tool that could be easily replaced.”

A 2024 U.K. survey describes a growing group of young people who want to participate in the workforce but can’t because of financial or health barriers, challenging the perception that young people are “lazy” or simply don’t want to work. One in four NEET respondents in the survey referenced mental health as the reason they were unable to work, and 21% of all the young people polled said their mental health had worsened in the last year.

Finances are another common issue. The cost of education is prohibitive for some young people, and for others who do complete education or training, the high cost of living in the cities where job opportunities exist can keep them out of the labor market. The impact of economic factors is reflected in the fact that low and lower-middle income economies have a higher percentage of NEETs compared to high and upper-middle income economies, according to the International Labour Organization.

What countries have the highest percentage of NEETs?

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), South Africa, Turkey, and Colombia had the three highest youth NEET rates of the countries where it collected data. The Netherlands, Norway, and Iceland had the three lowest youth NEET rates.

South Africa, though, is a particularly illustrative example. In 2022, the country had one of the globe’s highest percentages of NEETs – 42%. The overall economy of South Africa helps explain this high rate of NEET youth. The country has one of the highest unemployment rates at nearly 30%, and the country’s average annual household income is $9,338, less than a third of the global average.

The Overview newsletter

The news you need to navigate our world, delivered to your inbox every weekday afternoon.


Many of the country’s young NEETs live in economically disadvantaged areas, which includes low-income urban neighborhoods and rural communities, and they’re overwhelmingly Black Africans, according to the South African government.    

South Africa’s government noted that most young NEETs have a 12th-grade education or below, meaning that a lack of education could be a barrier to access for these young people. To combat this, they said, diverse educational and training programs need to be offered to assist those who did not complete schooling.   

"The persistently high numbers of persons who are NEET in South Africa illustrates a socially explosive situation that requires urgent attention," the South African government said in a March 2023 NEETs factsheet.

NEETs and gender

One factor that impacts NEET rates in some countries is gender. For example, according to the International Labour Organization, Afghanistan had a youth NEET rate of 65% for women in 2021, compared to only 19.5% for men. This gender gap existed even before the Taliban retook control over the country in 2021 and began restricting women’s ability to work. The ILO said this gap can often be attributed to women disproportionately taking on unpaid household labor, like childcare and cooking.  

The Netherlands, by contrast, boast one of the lowest percentages of young NEETs, according to the OECD: 4.5%.

According to a 2020 European Commission report, the Netherlands’ ministries of education, culture and science, and social affairs and employment have worked together to tackle youth unemployment, resulting in a one percentage point drop in NEET rates between 2014 and 2020.

This concerted governmental effort is one reason for the country’s low NEET rates, but researchers Alexander Dicks and Mark Levels suggest that the Netherlands’ education system is another key factor.  

“The Dutch education system aims to sort pupils according to their ability, provide them with skills relevant to them, and provide them with a qualification that is meaningful and valuable in the labour market,” they explain.

But even the Netherlands’ system has it limits. Dicks and Levels note that the education system’s approach to sorting students makes it increasingly difficult for those who are initially unsuccessful in their transition from school to work. If a student who was very technically trained for a particular job is unable to find one, they often face a perception that they’re “fundamentally unfit for the labour market.” The system also creates challenges for young migrants in the Netherlands, as the European Commission notes.  

What impact does being NEET have on young people and society?

A high percentage of NEETs can reflect – or, in some cases, even cause – significant rifts in the social and economic fabric of a region or nation. 

According to a 2022 study that looked at northeastern African countries, high youth unemployment often contributes to political instability, and in developing nations it is often a reason for political and social movements developing.

“Too many young people around the world are becoming detached from education and the labour market, which can damage their long-term prospects, as well as ultimately undermine the social and economic development of their countries,” Sangheon Lee told the United Nations in 2020. Lee is the director of the employment policy department at the International Labour Organization.

There are personal impacts to NEET status as well as societal ones.  

Half of young NEETs surveyed in the U.K. said “the uncertainty of the past few years has made them feel hopeless about their future.” Studies have also found that being NEET is linked with symptoms of depression, anxiety, substance use, and suicidality.

“Young people are finding themselves in a vicious cycle,” said Jonathan Townsend, the chief executive of the Prince’s Trust, in the foreword to the Trust’s 2024 youth survey. “Poor mental health is having a negative impact on their work, and yet being unemployed has a negative impact on their mental health – this is a deeply concerning trap.”   

In 2016, the United Nations launched a global initiative to address youth unemployment as part of the 2030 sustainable development agenda.

This work needs your support

Your tax-deductible donation enables us to break down the most complex global issues so you have the info you need to build a better world.