A recent Wall Street Journal article painted recent pandemic-driven declines in men’s postsecondary enrollment as an escalating crisis with “no reversal. . .in sight.” Responding a few days later in the New York Times, Kevin Carey wrote that the picture is a more complex with “women keep playing catch-up in an economy structured to favor men.”
In the figures below, we add to that picture by charting the percentage of young men and young women who are not in school or paid employment, segmented by age levels. Internationally, this is sometimes referred to as the “not in employment, education, or training,” or NEET rate, a term we use here with the caveat that it isn’t clear how well short-term job training is captured in US data.
As the figures show, young women at all age levels are less likely than young men at all age levels to be in school or work, however the NEET gender gap widens after age 24. Figure 1 charts NEET rates since 2013 for young women and men in three age bands (20–24; 25–29; and 30–34). In the first quarter of 2021, about 18 percent of men aged 20–24 and 18.5 percent of women in that same age range were not employed or in school. Among young men and women aged 25–29, about 17 percent of men and 23 percent of women were not employed or in school. Finally, among men and women aged 30–34, the NEET rates are 15 percent and 27 percent, respectively.
In short, the gender difference in NEET rates is narrowest at ages 20–24, but it widens at ages 25–29, and then again at ages 30–34.
Figure 2 charts the gender gap in NEET rates — women’s NEET rate minus men’s NEET rate — over time for each of these gender-age groups. For example, in 2019, women’s NEET rate at age 20–24 was about 2 percentage points higher than men. Among women ages 25–29, it was about 8.4 percentage points higher than men, and increased to about 14.6 percentage points at ages 30–34.
Over the past few years, the gender differences in NEET rates have narrowed, especially for the adults in their 20s. But women in their late 20s and early 30s have a long way to go before closing the gap. For example, for women aged 25–34 to catch up with men the same age, roughly 2 million more women would need to be in employment or school.
While the NEET rate is a useful indicator, it’s also important to note that it underestimates gender gaps when it comes to labor force attachment. This is because people who are “not in education or employment” include unemployed people (people in the labor force and actively looking for work) and people not in the labor force. If the numerator of the NEET rate excluded unemployed people who were looking for work (and not in school), the gender gap would widen somewhat because men are more likely to be unemployed and women are more likely to be out of the labor force.
The widening gender gap in NEET rates as young women enter their late 20s and early 30s is largely, if not exclusively, due to more women than men taking on greater unpaid care obligations. The current NEET gender gap for adults ages 25–34 who live with one or more of their own minor children is roughly 23 percentage points, while among adults in the same age range not caring for children, there is currently no meaningful gap (but there was a small one prior to 2020). One result is the well-documented “motherhood wage penalty” — the fact that mothers earn less than both men and childless women with similar educational levels and other characteristics.
Countries with expansive work-family policies, including paid leave and universal childcare have lower NEET rates for young adults and narrower NEET gender gaps than the United States. In Sweden, for example, there is no meaningful NEET gender gap at ages 20–24, and only a 3 percentage point gap in ages 30–34. Only about 10 percent of Swedish women ages 30–34 were not in employment or education in 2020 compared to about 29 percent of US women in the same age range.
The Build Back Better and infrastructure bills currently moving through Congress would increase the educational attainment, health, well-being, employment, and incomes of the diverse American working class. But for both young men and young women in the working-class to benefit in a roughly equal manner, both the infrastructure legislation and the economic security provisions in the Build Back Better Act, including universal childcare, paid family leave, and child allowances, need to be included.