MEXICO CITY — When sociological studies go into details, it sometimes reveals the unexpected presence of pockets of people living in intolerable conditions. This is not confined to backward or developing countries, showing up frequently in flourishing democracies and dynamic economies, and more so today as the equalizing winds of globalization create very similar panoramas in different countries.

One such segment consists of young people who neither work nor study: NEET (Not In Employment, Education or Training) as they were termed in the United Kingdom, or NiNis (Ni trabajan ni estudian) in Spanish-speaking countries. The term is applicable within the 15-24 age range (all of whom numbered 21.4 million in Mexico in 2015, or 18% of its population), where a negative perception has spread of NiNis as idle and lazy. It has indeed led certain members of the political class here to propose — rather shamelessly in their case — idiotic solutions to the precarious state of this population. One of these proposals came from the former governor of the state of Chihuahua, now fleeing justice, César Duarte, who suggested in 2011 that they should be recruited into the army.

It is not easy to gauge the size and state of NiNis in Mexico. Studies in recent years figures have cited them at 7.0, 4.7 or even 2.6 million, though none is really reliable, and various calculation methods and information sources are used. Indeed, it is time that the state statistical agency INEGI. begin to monitor this sector specifically, given its ability to forge social and economic data that help mold relevant public policies.

They are distributed throughout the country and found in all social classes.

NiNis everywhere are marked by the discrimination they suffer in both the labor market and education system. In 2016, the estimate for Latin America was that one-fifth of all youngsters aged 15-24 neither worked nor studied, which did indicate a relative decline between 1992 and 2010, and an absolute increase in the NiNi population by two million.

About 50% of NiNis are thought to be engaged in housework, which means they are not available for the labor market, and 95% are female, who also remain the longest in this position.

While the group is part of the Not Economically Active Population, the household chores it performs typically — shopping, paperwork, housework or even voluntary work — are socially useful, though not all NEAP are NiNis. The term NiNi was defined recently (by Gerardo Leyva and Rodrigo Negrete, 2014) as "neither useful nor pertinent," perhaps for the negative perceptions, it has engendered.

Non-remunerated housework in Mexico was valued in 2014 at 20% of the GDP, which forces one to reconsider both the pessimistic view of NiNis and of work done at home by women.

Briefly, we may say of NiNis: they are distributed throughout the country and found in all social classes (though most are poor). The media generalizations about this group highlight other problems relating to them, like youth unemployment (with or without qualifications), and precarious employment conditions (expressed through low wages). Being a NiNi is not a permanent state, and most would never choose to live this way. NiNis show mobility in time (when they find work or move to study for example), their situation is more precarious when they have studied less, and generally, they are characterized by a relative dearth of education.

A Mexican teen smokes marijuana before a rally demanding the decriminalization of drugs Photo: Javier Rodriguez/ZUMA

A part of the NiNi population is always close to certain acute problems like drug or alcohol addictions, violence, risky sexual practices or emotional instability. Their migration, in many cases to the United States, is part of a risky bid to integrate themselves in an alien society that is easily, and immediately, inclined to criminalize them, especially in the Trump administration.

Being a NiNi is not a permanent state.

The neoliberal economic model winds up destabilizing the development of NiNis. The mediocre economic growth patterns of recent years, interspersed with recessions (1995, 2001 and 2009), have created higher joblessness, disguised unemployment, precarious job contracts (or none), and inflationary episodes (most notably in 2017) that produce sudden bouts of extreme poverty and middle-class decline.

All of these macroeconomic indicators have helped nurture the NiNi class in Mexico. And this prompts the need for a debate to identify them as a social challenge that requires specific study, an assessment of their considerable creative potential — and ultimately public policy solutions.

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