Are young men falling behind young women? The idea that they are has become commonplace in headlines in recent years, particularly in stories highlighting the gender gap in post-secondary enrollment.1 To assess whether young men are falling behind young women more comprehensively, it is helpful to look at gender differences in the share of young people not employed or in school and how these differences change as young people get older.
A previous CEPR paper tracked NEET rates by sex through the first quarter of 2021.2 This report provides NEET rates through 2022. It also expands upon the earlier paper by providing NEET rates for 2022 that are disaggregated by four ethnicity-race categories, and documenting how many young people who are not in school or work have a disability, are living with a disabled adult family member, or are parents living with a child.
The share of young people not employed or in school is often called the NEET rate. The acronym is short for “not employed, in education, or training.” Young people in this category are sometimes described in normative terms as “disconnected” or “opportunity” youth, but these labels imply the group is a more homogeneous one than is the case.3 To avoid misinterpretations, this report uses the acronym NEET when referring to the NEET rate and the description “not employed or in school” when referring to young people who fall into the NEET category.
The NEET rate is used as a youth indicator by intergovernmental organizations and national statistical offices around the world.4 Initially limited to 18- to 24-year-olds, it now commonly includes 16- and 17- year-olds and 25- to 29-year-olds. As typically defined, the numerator of the NEET rate includes all non-students who are not employed in a particular age range, and the denominator includes all people in that same age range. Unlike the unemployment rate, which is the number of not-employed people who are actively searching for work divided by the total number of people who are employed or actively searching for work, the NEET rate includes non-students who are not actively looking for work in both the numerator (as long as they are not in school) and the denominator.
In the US, the youth unemployment rate and college attendance statistics get considerable media attention, but the NEET rate gets little to no attention. This reflects the fragmented nature of youth policy in the United States and the need for a federal office that serves a coordinating function. Instead of the kind of detailed information on NEET rates that Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, provides, federal government data on US NEET rates is limited. The Federal Interagency Forum on Family and Child Statistics publishes a NEET rate for 16- to 19-year-olds.5 The NEET rates published by the Department of Education are limited to 18- to 24-year-olds.6 Notably, the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the Department of Labor does not publish NEET rates.
The NEET rate is more visible in the European Union and other parts of the world. Eurostat annually publishes NEET statistics by EU country, age, sex, labor market activity status, and degree of urbanization. 7 As part of the European Pillar of Social Rights action plan, the European Union aims to reduce the EU-wide NEET rate for 15 to 29-year-olds to 9 percent (the 2021 rate was 13.1 percent).8 Under the EU’s Youth Guarantee, all EU members have committed to ensuring that within four months of becoming unemployed or leaving education, all young people under age 30 receive a “good quality offer” of employment, continued education, apprenticeship, or traineeship (internship).9
This report uses the monthly Current Population Survey (CPS) to calculate NEET rates. The CPS is a household survey that the federal government uses to produce various important employment indicators that are released on a monthly basis, including the unemployment rate and the labor force participation rate.
One of the limitations of the CPS is that it does not yet include questions about sexual orientation or gender identity.10 While this report disaggregates NEET rates by the two currently allowable responses (“male” and “female”) to the one CPS question that asks about “sex”, it is not able to disaggregate NEET rates by sexual orientation or gender identity. This is unfortunate because gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender norms influence young people’s education and employment. There may be significant differences in NEET status by sexual orientation and gender identity.11
Another limitation of the CPS is its sample, which is limited to the civilian noninstitutional population. As a result, the NEET rates calculated in this report exclude members of the US military and people who are incarcerated or living in other institutions. Military members should arguably be included in the denominator of the NEET rate. Including them in the denominator would reduce the NEET rate somewhat—since they are all employed or in training—and for young men more than young women. Incarcerated people are generally required to work for very low or no wages. Still, given the extremely coercive nature of their incarceration and labor, it seems unreasonable to include them in the denominator of the NEET rate unless they are also counted as not employed in the numerator of the rate. Including incarcerated people in both the denominator and numerator would increase the NEET rate somewhat, and for young men more than for young women.
As shown in Table 1, the NEET rate declined overall and for both women and men between 2015 and 2019. It then spiked in 2020 — hitting 20.2 percent for young women and 17.6 percent for young men. It then dropped in 2021 and 2022 and seems likely to return to its 2019 rate or lower this year, given increases in both employment and the stabilization of men’s undergraduate enrollment in fall 2022.
Although not shown here, 2022 NEET rates remain higher than the 2019 rates for all sex-race-ethncity groups, except Black men, whose NEET rates in 2019 and 2022 are the same (18.7 percent).
Figure 1 displays NEET rates in 2022 by age, sex, and four ethnicity-race groupings. AAPI men and white men have the lowest NEET rates—11.3 and 12 percent, respectively—and Black and Hispanic women have the highest NEET rates—19.6 and 20.3 percent. Within the four ethnicity-race groups, Hispanic men and women have the largest NEET gap (6.4 percentage points); Black men and women have the narrowest (1.2 percentage points).
Young women’s NEET rates increase with age. Young men’s rates increase modestly in their early 20s before declining in their late 20s. This gendered pattern holds for nearly all of the groups in the figure. The most notable exception is Black men — their NEET rate increases from 13.8 percent at ages 16-19 to 20.5 percent at ages 20-24 and then remains at roughly the same level in the second half of their twenties.
The NEET gap between white and Black men increases with age, going from 2.2 percentage points for 16- to 19-year-olds to 10 percentage points for 25- to 29-year-olds. The other groups falling behind white men by roughly this distance or more in their late 20s include women overall (9.6 p.p. higher NEET rate), Black women (10.3 p.p. higher), and Latinas (15 p.p. higher). White men are not a monolith either — they are divided by class background, disability, and other categorical inequalities. But as these figures show, narratives that imply young men as a whole are falling behind young women are misleading and obscure the more fundamental inequalities that exist among young people.
As Figure 2 shows, nearly one in ten NEET young people have a disability, about 12 percent of them live with a disabled adult, and about 23 percent are parents living with one of their own children under 18. By comparison, 2.4 percent of young people who are employed or in school have a disability, about 8.9 percent live with a disabled adult, and 10.8 percent are parents living with one of their own children.
As Figure 2 also shows, about 36.7 percent of young women not in school or paid employment are parents who live with one or more of their children, compared to only about 5.8 percent of men not in school or paid employment.
In Figure 3, we show the percentage of NEET young adults who fall into at least one of these three care- and disability-related categories. Mainly reflecting the gender difference in childcare obligations, just over half of NEET women (54 percent) fall into one of these categories compared to just over one-third of NEET men (35.4 percent). Across the four ethnicity-race groupings, more NEET women fall into one of these three categories than NEET men.
Figure 4 shows NEET rates excluding young people who do not fall into any of the three disability- and care-related categories. The NEET rate for young people who do not fall into one or more of the three disability/care categories is 8.3 percent, about 7 percentage points lower than the overall NEET rate in Figure 1 (15.2 percent). Among young people who do not fall into any of the three disability- and care-related categories, NEET rates are highest for Black men (12.5 percent) and Black women (9.9 percent) and lowest for white men (7.4 percent) and white women (6.5 percent)
Overall, NEET rates generally increase with age for women. Still, among young people who do not fall into one or more of the three disability-care categories, NEET rates generally decline with age for both women and men. Young Black men are a notable exception — their NEET rates increase with age, including when Black men not in any disability-care categories are excluded from the calculation.
Especially for working-class young adults, education, employment, and care are linked processes that often don’t proceed in a simple linear manner. Some young adults have the opportunity and resources to focus on school — getting a BA degree and possibly further education — before proceeding to well-compensated paid employment. For many others, the process involves combinations of and movements between school, paid work that is often poorly compensated, unemployment, and unpaid care work.
Because it takes both employment and educational engagement into account, the NEET rate helps provide a better overarching picture of gender inequalities among young adults than looking at a single education indicator. This picture can be further sharpened by considering care- and disability-related factors in young people’s lives and looking at differences by ethnicity, race, and class background.
As the figures in this report show, narratives that imply young men (as a group) are falling behind young women are misleading and obscure more fundamental divides that exist among young people. It would be more accurate to say that most groups of young men and women are falling behind white men in their late 20s, particularly Black men, women overall, Black women, and Latinas.
Categorical inequalities in NEET rates are not individual or natural; they are produced by structural choices, including policy choices made by governments and private institutions. These choices include ones that have disadvantaged various groups of men — including working-class men (best understood as a diverse, multi-ethnic-racial group, rather than a homogeneous political mythological one), Black men, and disabled men — and rewarded rich and powerful men.
Reducing the inequalities in young people’s well-being and power will require more than narrowly tailored policy changes. Many working-class young people, including many Black men, are particularly disadvantaged by the lack of universal social policies in the United States — like Medicare for All and a Youth Guarantee — and strong labor market institutions that balance political and economic power between workers and employers. As CEPR has previously documented, health insurance is near-universal in the US for children; as a result, Black and white boys are equally likely to have health coverage. But the absence of universal health insurance after childhood, until Medicare kicks in at age 65, means that uninsurance increases for young adults generally, with Black men experiencing particularly large increases.12
In addition to universal health insurance, policies that would reduce the NEET rate include universal child care, other family benefits, eliminating tuition for public colleges and universities, and large-scale job programs for young people.13 For young people, these policies could be packaged as a US Youth Guarantee — a public commitment that all young people under age 30 receive a “good quality offer” of employment, continued education, apprenticeship, or traineeship after becoming unemployed or leaving education, as well as the supports like child care and health insurance they need.
Finally, to promote a better understanding of young people’s interrelated education and employment pathways, the Department of Education and the Department of Labor should publish a joint annual report that includes disaggregated NEET rates. The report should also include data on care- and disability-related differences in NEET rates and other related statistics, including job quality.