This growing phenomenon is showing up across the region, a potential sign of entrenched unemployment and even deeper social malaise.
SANTIAGO - They are called the “NiNi” brigade, from the Spanish phrase “Ni Estudian Ni Trabajan” – youths who neither study nor work. It is a category that can be confusing – the difference between idle time and official unemployment tied up in whether the person declares that are "actively seeking work."
Some studies suggest that Latin America includes 18% of young people between 15 and 18 who could be classified as “NiNis;” other figures indicate that some 14% are technically among the unemployed.
With increasing studies and reports on NiNi youths, we need to dig a little deeper on the definition of this group, the difficulty of counting them and defining whom this label applies to -- and ultimately, the causes behind this phenomenon.
Who are the NiNis really? With the exception of Peru, about 70% to 80% of NiNis are concentrated in the three lowest income categories. The interesting thing is that this concentration is evident in countries with the highest per capita incomes in the region such as Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina and Panama. By contrast, in poorer countries, such as Honduras and the Dominican Republic, the proportion of NiNis is roughly divided across all income quintiles.
One interesting statistic that jumps right out: the majority of NiNis are girls. The most dramatic difference is in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador where there are three times more NiNi girls (aged 15 to 19) than boys.
What are the potential problems with counting the NiNis? For instance, household surveys only take into account the reference week or the reference month when the survey was taken. Then, among the NiNis there can be many young people who are studying but are taking courses or who are disabled, young people who are looking for work but not during the appointed "reference week," and girls who are already housewives, with teenage pregnancies.
Not looking for work
For instance, take Brazil. Among 15-24 year-olds, 46.39% are studying and 53.61% are not. Of those who are not studying, 18.98% neither study nor work. Some studies characterize this group as NiNis. Considering the definition of unemployment, we see that 72.4% took no action in finding a job, which leaves us with a group of 13.7% who neither study nor work nor are looking for a job. The interesting thing is that the number is much higher when the youths have between 11 and 12 years of education, equivalent to having completed or be about to complete high school. In this case, the majority aren’t from ethnic minorities; they are of mixed-race or white.
The fine line between being unemployed and being a NiNi is quite narrow, especially in countries where there are no unemployment registration systems. The number of young people who report they are looking for work increases if one looks at one month or two months.
The implications for public policy to address the issue of NiNis should take into account the heterogeneity of this group. The high number of girls may indicate cultural practices, teenage pregnancies, young women becoming housewives or taking care of family members. In this group, there are also youths who cannot work because of physical or emotional issues, a topic that has been worked extensively in other countries but it is new in Latin America.
Also in this group of NiNis are people who have stopped looking for work because of lack of motivation, lack of opportunity or after long periods of unemployment. This can happen to people who have completed high school and seek employment in the formal sector, but find no opportunities. The fact that the percentage of NiNis increases with 11 and 12 years of schooling and plummets with 13 years (University level) is consistent with the high levels of unemployment among young people with just secondary education.