In March 2017, I travelled to Manchester to meet three women. A local youth employment organisation had set up interviews with each of these young women so that I could talk to them about their everyday lives and their experience of education, work and claiming benefits. What all the young women had in common was that they were not working, studying or training (NEET) and unable to seek work or start a job imminently. They would be defined by researchers and policymakers (rather coldly and impersonally) as ‘economically inactive’ (EI).
The things that the women told me in March turned out to be typical of the 57 EI 16-24-year-old women that I and the rest of the researchers interviewed in total over the ensuing months. Caring for children or parents had interrupted their education and reduced their options for work or further study. Health problems – mental and physical – isolated them and kept their self-esteem low. They struggled with the inadequate money they were able to claim from Jobcentre Plus or family members but were not in the position to look for work, despite wanting to in the long-run. Their dreams were modest: a job as a carer or health professional, getting a council flat with their boyfriend, having a family.
First of all, our full report lists a host of ideas that could help EI young women get the futures they want. These range from one-to-one support or mentorship programmes, to extending childcare funding, to increasing benefit payments. To make them happen, we are asking government to appoint a Ministerial Champion who would drive forward change to help EI young people.
Secondly, there is a clear and crippling crisis in young women’s mental health, with young women three times as likely as men to have a common mental health problem, such as depression. It was shocking to hear first-hand how mental ill health caused the women so much anguish. It prevented them holding down jobs, college courses or even friendships. Meanwhile the treatment they got was patchy in its effectiveness. Young Women’s Trust are calling for youth and mental health charities to start a conversation about how to tackle this pervasive problem.
Finally, we as a society should appreciate the unpaid work young women are doing now and the terms policymakers use should reflect that appreciation. In an earlier blog I have written about how much I dislike the label ‘economically inactive’. If we say a young woman is EI then it implies she is doing nothing, or nothing of any value. Our research shows this couldn’t be further from the truth. Mothers spent long days looking after their children, cleaning, cooking and providing for their families. Young carers took on housework as well as responsibility for parents’ and siblings’ health and wellbeing, while trying to look after themselves. As Gabriella, 18, described it: ‘It’s like I’m on a treadmill.’
I am extremely grateful to the young women who came to tell us interviewers their stories. Some women talked readily and quickly, as if they had just been waiting for someone to ask. Others found it painful and difficult to put into words what they did or how they felt. I hope that we can do their effort justice and rewrite the bigger story about young women and economic inactivity.
Emma McKay is Research Manager at Young Women’s Trust