SALDRU has been running an annual analysis of Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) data to keep a finger on the pulse of the large cohort of young people who are not in employment, education or training (NEET). We do this because research has indicated that NEET youth are among the most vulnerable youth in the country: extended periods of disconnect from the labour market and education or training opportunities increase young people’s risk of remaining trapped in income poverty and of mental ill health. The situation feeds an endless cycle of exclusion that comes at a high cost for the individual young person, his or her family, and society at large.
This factsheet provides an overview of SALDRU’s latest NEET youth analysis using QLFS 2023, Quarter 1 (Q1) data.
Trends of the youth NEET rate in South Africa
Figure 1 illustrates the persistent challenge of a high share of young people between the ages of 15 to 24 years who are NEET in South Africa over the last decade, with a rate consistently exceeding 30%. This rate represents a staggering number of over 3 million young people, and reached a peak of 34.3% in 2022. We note a slight but statistically insignificant decrease to 33.3% in 2023. Further efforts are thus needed to address the underlying factors contributing to the consistently high NEET rates among South African youth.
Figure 1: Proportion of young people who are NEET in South Africa, QLFS Q1 data for 2013–2023
Who are the young people who are NEET in South Africa?
Table 1 provides evidence of the persistent heterogeneity within the young NEET group. Similar to what was observed in 2022, the majority of the 3.4 million youth who reported being NEET in Q1 of 2023 are unemployed.
However, we see a notable decrease in discouragement and an increase in searching unemployed NEET youth, compared to 2022.
These changes are substantial and significant, indicating meaningful shifts in the composition of NEET youth, with more now actively searching for opportunities in the labour market. On the other hand, the number of inactive NEETs in 2023 remains relatively unchanged when compared to 2022.
Table 1: Overview of NEET youth in South Africa, QLFS Q1 data for 2013, 2022 and 2023
In addition, Table 1 shows that the gender distribution among NEET youth remains very similar in 2023 compared to previous years, with slightly more females than males. Youth who are NEET also remain more concentrated in urban areas than in rural areas and within the Black sub-population.
The relatively high proportion of NEET youth in 2023 who have a matric, compared to in 2013, indicates a potentially lower protective function of the matric certificate than 10 years ago.
Worryingly, a slightly larger proportion of NEET youth have some form of tertiary education than what we saw last year.
Within the cohort of youth who are NEET and have an orientation towards the labour market – i.e., those who indicate wanting to work – the majority are experiencing long-term unemployment.
This is seen in Table 2, a trend that is also reflected in the disaggregation of NEET youth who are new entrants into the labour market. However, alongside the decrease in discouragement noted above, we see significant increases in both short-term and long-term unemployment compared to 2022. While the large numbers of long-term unemployed youth remain, the shift away from discouragement and the increase in short-term unemployment could be considered promising.
Table 2 also shows the composition of the inactive NEET youth cohort – i.e., those disengaged from the labour market. As in 2022, a significant proportion of inactive NEET youth identify their primary reason for inactivity as homemaker responsibilities. The majority of inactive young homemakers (82.5%) are females. The statistically significant rise in inactive NEET youth due to health reasons compared to 2022 should be noted. This rise demands further investigation, as it carries important implications for the overall well-being and future re-engagement options of these young people with the labour market or education.
Table 2: NEET youth by active and inactive sub-groups, QLFS Q1 data for 2013, 2022 and 2023
Similar to previous years, we note that the majority of youth who are NEET are new entrants to the labour market: they have never worked before (Table 3). Table 4 indicates that of those new entrants, the vast majority have been looking for work for well over a year. However, compared to 2022, we also note a statistically significant increase in the proportion of youth who have been looking for work for less than 3 months (from 7.8% to 11.2%), in line with the increase in short-term unemployment noted earlier. Further investigation would be required to better understand the drivers of this change.
Table 3: Searching unemployed NEET youth by unemployment status, QLFS Q1 data for 2013, 2022 and 2023
The persistently high proportions of NEET youth who are long-term jobseekers highlights the resilience of young people in their pursuit of employment opportunities. Despite facing multiple challenges, these youths continue their job search endeavours, demonstrating their determination and the importance that they place on gaining employment.
Table 4: Searching unemployed, new entrant NEET youth by time in the labour market looking for work, QLFS Q1 data for 2013, 2022 and 2023
Where are the young NEETs in South Africa?
Figure 2 shows how youth NEET rates display substantial variation across provinces. The national average of 33.3% masks worse situations in provinces like North West (42.8%) and Mpumalanga (36.8%).
Examining the profile of young people who are NEET per province, we observe significant differences. For example, in the Western Cape and Gauteng, the majority of NEET youth are actively searching for employment, while in the Eastern Cape and Northern Cape, the majority are inactive. These provincial disparities underscore the need for a nuanced understanding of the NEET youth and for evidence-based, province-specific approaches to effectively address the underlying factors that contribute to the high NEET rates.
Figure 2: Proportion of NEET youth 15-24 years in South Africa, by province, 2023
Implications of the findings
South Africa has been grappling with persistently high rates of young people who are NEET, despite numerous programs and interventions aimed at supporting youth transitions into learning and earning opportunities.
The QLFS data presented in this factsheet indicate that South Africa has failed to meet SDG 8, Target 8.6, of substantially reducing the proportion of NEET youth by 2020 (see United Nations, 2015). Failing to tackle this issue effectively also puts the country at risk of failing to meet its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The data further indicate the heterogeneity of this cohort of young people, reinforcing the importance of interventions that recognise – and are able to solve for – their distinct and multiple challenges, requirements, and circumstances and to do so with an understanding of the differences that play out at a sub-national level.
Further details, including an analysis of General Household Survey 2021 data that unpacks the proportion of NEET youth living in household poverty (close to 70% in 2021) and regression results on the driving factors of ‘NEET-hood’ will be released in a SALDRU working paper (Mudiriza and De Lannoy, forthcoming).
This analysis was carried out with support from the French Development Agency (AFD) through the EU-AFD Research Facility on Inequalities.
Branson, N., De Lannoy, A., & Kahn, A. (2019). Exploring the transitions and well-being of young people who leave school before completing secondary education in South Africa. Working Paper Series Number 244, NIDS Discussion Paper 2019/11 Version 1.
Casale, D., & Posel, D. (2021). Gender inequality and the COVID-19 crisis: Evidence from a large national survey during South Africa’s lockdown. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 71, 100569.
Mudiriza, G., & De Lannoy, A. (2022). Profile of young NEETs in South Africa. Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit, Policy Brief. University of Cape Town. [Accessed, June, 2023].
Mudiriza, G., & De Lannoy, A. (forthcoming, 2023). Profile of young NEETs aged 15-24 years in South Africa: an annual update. Working Paper. Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit, University of Cape Town.
Statistics South Africa. (2013 – 2021). General Household Survey 2013, 2018, 2021. Pretoria: Stats SA. Analysis by Authors.
Statistics South Africa. (2021). National Poverty Lines, Statistical release P0310.1. Statistics South Africa.
Statistics South Africa. (2013 – 2023). Quarterly Labour Force Survey 2013 – 2023, Quarter 1, Pretoria: Stats SA. Analysis by authors.
United Nations. (2015). General Assembly Resolution A/RES/70/1. Transforming our world: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. [Accessed, June, 2023. https://sdgs.un.org/2030agenda].
 The youth NEET rate is defined as the number of young persons who are not in education, employment or training as a percentage of the total youth population aged 15-24 years old. Our NEET rates are slightly lower than what is reported by Statistics South Africa. See Mudiriza and De Lannoy (2022) for further explanation. All of the statistics in this factsheet are weighted using person weights.