I met three young women at the start of this year to talk about their everyday lives and their experience of education, work and claiming benefits. They were from Manchester and a local youth organisation had put us in touch. What all the women had in common was that they were not working, studying or training (NEET) and they were unable to seek work or start a job imminently. They would be defined by researchers and policymakers as ‘economically inactive’ (EI).
The stories that the women told me turned out to be typical of the 57 ‘economically inactive’ 16-24 year-old women that I and our team of researchers interviewed over the next six 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 either now or 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.
Young, female and forgotten?, the report that followed our research, was published last week. The question for me now is: what are the next immediate steps to help EI young women?
First of all, our full report has 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 the Government to appoint a ministerial champion, who would drive forward changes.
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 is calling for youth and mental health charities to start a conversation about how to tackle this pervasive problem.
Finally, as a society we should appreciate the unpaid work young women are doing and the terms policymakers use should reflect that appreciation. In an earlier blog I wrote about the inadequacy of the label ‘economically inactive’. It implies people are 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’m incredibly grateful to the young women who told us 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.