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To be or not to be NEET? The complexity of school-to-work transitions in Brussels

Être ou ne pas être NEET ? La complexité des transitions études-marché de l’emploi à Bruxelles
Wel of niet NEET? De complexiteit van de transitie van onderwijs naar arbeidsmarkt in Brussel
Géraldine André et Andrew Crosby
Traduction de Jane Corrigan
Cet article est une traduction de :
Être ou ne pas être NEET ? La complexité des transitions études-marché de l’emploi à Bruxelles [fr]
Autre(s) traduction(s) de cet article :
Thematisch dossier: onderwijs [nl]


Dans le sillage des recommandations de l’Union européenne, les pouvoirs publics à Bruxelles ont mis en place des dispositifs de lutte contre le décrochage scolaire et le chômage des jeunes. Néanmoins, ces programmes qui mobilisent la catégorie « NEET » (neither in education, employment or training) ont une approche standardisée et finissent par réduire la problématique à une question d’employabilité individuelle. Notre contribution avance une analyse critique de la catégorie NEET que nous proposons d’affiner en plusieurs types et dont l’utilisation dans les politiques publiques bruxelloises permettrait de mieux cibler les jeunes qui en ont le plus besoin. A partir d’un matériel ethnographique récolté auprès de jeunes des quartiers populaires de Bruxelles, nous proposons une approche sociologique qui permet de dégager une typologie plus fine des situations NEET/non-NEET. Notre analyse contribue, d’une part, à déconstruire la catégorie statistique de NEET en des situations sociales diversifiées, d’autre part, elle indique combien les situations NEET résultent de trajectoires façonnées par des dynamiques structurelles et par des processus d’inégalités, qu’ils soient relatifs à la classe et/ou à l’origine migratoire.

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Notes de l’auteur

This article is based on some of the results of the “EMPOWER-YOUTH” project which was funded by Innoviris between November 2017 and January 2022.

Texte intégral


1Since the 2008 crisis, the transition from education to the job market of the least qualified fractions of youth have been more unstable and insecure than they had been since the 1990s [Wolbers, 2014]. In the wake of the European Union's recommendations, the public authorities in Brussels have put strategies in place to combat early school leaving and youth unemployment. However, the standardised approach of these strategies may not achieve its objectives, as it fails to recognise the diversity of situations and paths leading to early school leaving or unemployment. In particular, the programmes aimed at young people between the ages of 18 and 30 labelled as “NEET” (not in education, employment or training), carried out in the framework of the Youth Employment Initiative (YEI) in collaboration with the European Social Fund, boils the problem down to a question of individual employability. Thus, these programmes take little account of the fact that youth are also subject to the social question which, in Brussels, is interwined with issues of ethnicity and spatial/residential segregation processes [Jacobs and Rea, 2007; Rea et al., 2009; Sacco et al., 2016]. Brussels is a highly polarised city [Van Hamme et al., 2016]: the outskirts are composed of the most socio-economically advantaged neighbourhoods. In contrast, the neighbourhoods in the centre and northwest of Brussels present several difficulties and disadvantages (low income, job market and household insecurity) and have a higher concentration of populations with a non-European immigration background than other neighbourhoods of Brussels. These urban segregation phenomena affect younger generations in particular, as children and youth (0-19 years) are strongly represented in disadvantaged neighbourhoods [Wayens et al., 2013].

2This paper presents a critical analysis of the NEET category, which we propose to break down into several subcategories, whose use in Brussels public policies would allow a better targeting of the young people who need it most. Following the literature review which indicates that the NEET category is based on a simplified approach to social inequality [for the literature review, see André and Crosby, 2022], our analysis is based on a sociological approach inspired by the sociology of inequality and youth. Our approach allows us to identify a more refined typology of NEET/non-NEET situations based on ethnographic material collected from young people in working-class neighbourhoods in the capital. Our analysis includes a comprehensive approach to the paths of young people, which helps to deconstruct the statistical category of NEET into diverse social situations. This new categorisation based on our empirical material shows the extent to which NEET situations are actually the result of paths shaped by structural dynamics as well as by relationships and processes of inequality, whether they are related to class, migratory origin or their meeting points, and whose impact is felt in the spheres of education and the Brussels job market.

1. An approach based on inequalities and differentiation of youth

3Our analysis of the NEET category is based on a theoretical framework which combines three distinct bodies of literature. Their complementary nature provides a relevant analytical framework for the Brussels context in which social and ethno-racial issues overlap [Franssen et al., 2014]. Firstly, in a frequent approach in keeping with the Bourdieusian perspective, the qualitative sociology of social inequalities aims to analyse the differentiated positions with respect to inequalities, whether they are feelings of injustice or positions of resistance, as well as the processes of incorporation of inequalities, different forms of consent or the mechanisms contributing to their legitimisation [Millet and Croizet, 2016]. It also allows us to study the processes and cumulative succession of inequalities at the heart of young people's paths [Galland and Lemel, 2018]. Secondly, we have used certain concepts from the American sociology of immigration. More specifically, studies of “segmented assimilation” of second generations [Portes and Zhou, 1993] have emphasised the key role of governmental and societal attitudes towards foreigners and ethnic communities. Welcoming and supportive migration policies in employment, housing and education promote integration and social mix, while restrictive policies, prejudice and racism promote “downward assimilation” leading to socio-ethnic segregation. These two distinct theoretical corpora complement each other in that they both show how the individual paths and identity building of young people are structured by positions within the social space and relationships of domination with respect to class and ethnicity, and can therefore reinforce each other. In doing so, they echo our third theoretical corpus, namely the sociology of youth. The latter emphasises in particular the social differentiation of youth and therefore the diversity of paths to adulthood, particularly in the transitions from education to employment [Galland, 2011].

2. Method

4In contrast to quantitative NEET studies, this article relies on qualitative data gathered during field work among young Brussels residents from the most impoverished neighbourhoods of Brussels between April 2018 and August 2019. The field work took place at several sites which had been selected previously on the basis of the most impoverished statistical sectors of five municipalities in Brussels (Schaerbeek, Molenbeek, Brussels-City, Saint-Josse and Anderlecht) [Van Hamme et al., 2016]. In these neighbourhoods, as the phenomena of educational underachievement and early school leaving without a diploma from upper secondary school are very frequent [Observatoire de la santé et du social, 2017], encountering young people in unstable transitions from education to employment was more likely, although these situations are also encountered in other neighbourhoods of Brussels.

5Our field work framework was based on Olivier de Sardan's ECRIS method [1995], a multi-site approach involving multiple researchers in the field of public action, and was adapted to the theme and duration and contains three phases. In the first phase, an individual exploratory survey was aimed at identifying qualitative indicators in order to begin field observations. This phase led to the creation of a collective study tool, namely ethnographic records aimed at reorganising the narratives of educational paths and transitions from education to employment with respect to qualitative indicators regarding:

  1. Objective and subjective levels of social belonging (identification, discrimination, etc.);

  2. Experiences of social disruption and bifurcations, successive inequalities in paths and processes;

  3. The sphere of “leisure” and “youth” sociability;

  4. The relationship to institutions and measures (agents, sentiments on meritocracy, methods of public action, etc.), as well as to society (sentiments on belonging, responsibilities and identity);

  5. Social, economic and cultural aspirations, etc.;

  6. Types of resource mobilised: family, community or alternative network.

6The second phase consisted of a one-month collective field work carried out by 18 interviewers on street corners and in other public places in the neighbourhoods (squares, parks, etc.). In order to diversify the survey population from a comparative perspective, young people registered in public action programmes (youth centres, return to school, socio-professional integration (SPI)), in a declared or undeclared work situation, training situation or enrolled in studies, were also interviewed as the collective survey phase progressed. The third phase involved more in-depth ethnographic surveys in the neighbourhoods, and was aimed in particular at going further into the youths' accounts of their paths through comprehensive interviews (in particular the point of view of young people in NEET situations or at risk of early school leaving), as well as at diversifying the population in terms of gender.

  • 1 Emic categories refer to the categories of the stakeholders as they formulate them, as opposed to e (...)

7These three phases of the field work mainly involved qualitative ethnographic methods of inquiry (informal exchanges, life stories or direct observation). The sphere of young people's sociability within different networks of relationships and informal community groups such as neighbourhood “communities” or groups of “big brothers”, to use emic categories,1 was the preferred channel for the initial contact with young people as well as for exchanges and observations over the longer term. This immersion in working-class neighbourhoods led to more in-depth interviews with 93 young people between the ages of 17 and 25, most of whom were boys. This over-representation of boys in the survey population can be explained by the fact that women were less present in the public spaces of the neighbourhoods under study, as well as in the public action programmes aimed at a return to school and training. Most of the people we met were second-generation non-European immigrants. The analysis of the ethnographic material was carried out during the field work stage with the ethnographic records, which organise the data according to the different qualitative indicators mentioned previously, which were refined during the creation of the theoretical approach and the different phases of the field work.

3. Results

8Based on the description of the survey population, this section presents the results of our two-stage field work.

9First (3.1. NEET/Non-NEET typology), we add several qualitative subtleties and clarifications to the statistical difference between NEET and non-NEET. It should be noted from the outset that in our analysis this category does not describe individual states (“being” or “not being” NEET), but rather situations in which young people find themselves at one (or more) point(s) in their lives. There are several advantages to this approach. First, it allows us not to essentialise the NEET category in order to avoid representing young people in this situation as being at fault with respect to work, school or training. This approach also allows us to address the limits of this first categorisation and to go beyond them by integrating a sociological dimension. We used the official NEET category to cross-reference it with the sociological data of the respondents. Since this cross-referencing alone did not explain the NEET situation (entry, exit, return), we relied on the youths' accounts of their situations to establish a more complex typology of NEET and non-NEET situations. While the majority of young people in our survey population are part of the second generation of non-European immigrants and the working classes, there are variations which distribute these young people along a continuum ranging from the most fragile fractions to the more stabilised fractions of the working classes, and even to the middle classes. We thus increase the complexity of the NEET/non-NEET typology by relying on subjective elements mentioned by the youth and objective elements such as parents' level of qualification or work, or household composition. This led us to divide the non-NEET situations into three types of situations: (1) secondary school education, (2) declared work or training (3) or higher education. NEET situations, on the other hand, can be divided into two types: (4) discontinuous and (5) outside the system (see below). These situations make it possible to work by comparison, to resituate and describe all of these situations as being associated with positions in the social space and as reflecting integration in different segments of this space.

10The second part of the presentation of the results (3.2. Path analysis) is aimed at refining the NEET category. With this in mind, this section does not deal with non-NEET situations, but focuses on NEET situations which are “outside the system” and “discontinuous”, and presents a comprehensive analysis of the different paths associated with these two types of situations.

3.1. NEET/non-NEET typology

11The most striking difference between NEET and non-NEET youth is that NEET youth feel that they are not Belgian – that is, that they do not belong to society – and generally feel discriminated against. In contrast, young people who have not experienced NEET situations, and who have experienced social advancement, affirm their dual ethnic belonging unanimously: both Belgian and..., thus illustrating “upward assimilation” paths [Portes and Zhou 1993] in which ethnic origin is not perceived as a handicap or an object of discrimination, but rather as a recognised asset. They also share a sense of merit and adhere to the ideology of meritocracy: they say that it is because they have worked hard and faced their obstacles that they have succeeded. Hence, very often, discrimination and racism are not perceived as systems of domination, but rather as the individual acts of malicious people. Therefore, the feeling of belonging seems to be the result of this experience of the presence or absence of discrimination. Feelings of not belonging and discrimination are therefore the two most common traits among NEET youth and the most distinctive with respect to non-NEET youth.

12In addition to these differences, there are others, namely the degree of distrust or confidence in the state and its various institutions. For example, young people who are in work or training situations frequently turn to aid resources (job search, unemployment, training, etc.) and generally have great confidence in the institutions. This conformist attitude towards institutions is not a coincidence: these situations are correlated with a family background with knowledge of the institutions and experience which tends to be positive. On the contrary, young people in NEET situations do not perceive institutions as vehicles for assistance and supporting rights and socio-economic advancement, but mainly as a means of control.

13This typological approach, which is based solely on NEET/non-NEET opposition, faces several difficulties which reveal the limitations of this statistical category were it not to be refined. Firstly, these difficulties concern the temporal and processual dimensions which characterise NEET situations. With regard to the temporal dimensions, the data collected show that the existence of a NEET situation corresponds to phases of transition to adulthood which some young people are more likely to experience but also emerge from eventually. Thus, a significant number of youth had experienced NEET situations, sometimes for a long time (several years), but were no longer in such situations when we met them. For this reason, they shared characteristics with NEET youth and were included in the NEET category for our analysis. Other youths who had not been in NEET situations, such as secondary school students or youth in training, also shared characteristics with youth who were in NEET situations. For example, among the young people we met during the survey, some were still in secondary school and had an educational pathway in which they repeated years and changed study options, in keeping with the “counter-school” culture [Willis, 2016]. Nevertheless, as they were still in school at the time of the survey (by definition, non-NEET), they emphasised the importance of finishing their studies in order to increase their chances of success in life, and thus seemed motivated to obtain their CESS (upper secondary education certificate). But there are many elements which suggest that these youths are more likely to experience NEET situations later in life. Studies on early school leaving have shown how indicators such as low parental education, household economic needs, (early) changes in study options and repeating years increase the likelihood of early school leaving [Campbell, 2015; Nicaise et al., 2013; Danhier et al., 2014]. In addition, early school leavers are reportedly more likely to be in precarious situations in terms of finances (unemployment) or physical and mental health [De Groof and Elchardus, 2013; Psacharopoulos, 2007; De Witte and Mazrekaj, 2015]. Therefore, these situations are largely the result of different (successions of) processes related to inequalities and need to be studied as such, which we shall do in the second part of the presentation of the results.

14Our survey also highlights the fact that NEET situations reflect transitional periods which are fairly characteristic of this stage of life, involving socially differentiated processes of “self-construction” and “autonomy of the subject” [Van de Velde, 2015]. In fact, many of the young people we met recounted moments in their lives when they were questioning themselves and their identity, rebelling against and distancing themselves from their parents or other people in positions of authority, and when the dynamics of self-construction and building their autonomy were expressed. For some, these moments led to more or less lengthy periods of withdrawal from studies, the job market or any other institutional circuit. This is the case, for example, of Aaliyah, a middle-class girl, who recounts with some pride the two years since she obtained her CESS (upper secondary education certificate) in the general stream, which she describes as a “rebellion”. During this time, which she says helped her understand what she “wanted to do in life,” she stayed out of school and the job market for one year, hung out with young people in the neighbourhood and saw a psychologist. Then, after getting into trouble with the law, she ran away from home following heated discussions with her parents.

“I ran away afterwards. I stayed with a friend for one year. That's when I started working at Carrefour and Colruyt. My friends found jobs for me. I ended up registering at ULB, and I have just finished my bachelor's degree and am going to register for a master’s degree. [...] I now have a lot of motivation and energy to study.”

15During this time, her parents continued to support her financially. These moments of self-questioning and the building of one's autonomy are also experienced by other young people from less privileged social backgrounds. However, due to the differentiation of living conditions and family environments, these situations are experienced in very contrasting ways, as illustrated by the NEET situation of Jean who is, as he says, in “struggle mode”.

Jean is 19 years old and comes from DR Congo. When he was only 8 years old, family members came to get him while he was playing football with his friends, and he was put on a plane to Europe. After 8 months in a detention centre in France, he was reunited with his mother who was living in a poor neighbourhood of Brussels. His father never left the DRC, and his mother is still an illegal immigrant who has undeclared work in a café in order to raise her children. Jean has not been going to school for almost a year because his drug-dealing business – which he started in order to support himself and his mother – takes up all of his time. He does not have time to do sports anymore. Yet, as he explains, he was quite good at sports and dreamt of being a football player. But as he says, he is in “struggle mode”. The “struggle mode” he refers to is that of “young people like him” who are in the same situation of economic necessity, of getting by and dealing drugs. (Field notes from an unrecorded comprehensive interview)

16While young people like Aaliyah from relatively privileged social backgrounds talk about their NEET situation as a “gap year”, young people like Jean from precarious backgrounds are in “struggle mode” and therefore have relatively less freedom and time to “find themselves”. These periods when young people are “finding themselves” are much more difficult for young people from precarious backgrounds because, as Jean's story illustrates, their paths are marked by a decrease in the range of possibilities (“he dreamt of being a football player”). In other words, the difference in living conditions means that NEET situations do not affect young people's paths in the same way.

17The difficulties associated with this first typology due to situations indicate that it is necessary to consider the individual paths of young people in order to refine the NEET category, which is the topic of the following section.

3.2. Path analysis

18This second part of the presentation of results is aimed at refining the analysis by focusing on NEET situations (NEET situations “outside the system” and “discontinuous” situations) and developing a comprehensive analysis of the different paths associated with them.

3.2.1. Paths and NEET situations outside the system

19The analysis of the paths of youth who have experienced NEET situations outside the system will allow us to better understand the structural reasons which shaped them. Jean's story is particularly illustrative.

His academic difficulties started when he began his secondary school education in the only school “he could find”. Jean explained that after repeating a second year, he “went crazy at school”, which he says was due to “bad influences” and certain peers who were “provoking him”. The behavioural difficulties which arose after he repeated two years led to his being sent to an IPPJ (public institution for the protection of youth). Afterwards, he ended up in a vocational school which was far from corresponding to his aspirations, as he described it as a “school for ruffians”. He ended up suspending his schooling mainly for financial reasons, with no incentive to continue his studies given the fact that he had reached the age of majority. (Field notes from an unrecorded comprehensive interview)

20The young people we met during the survey who were in situations outside the system experienced a combination of very difficult living conditions, such as parents without jobs or income, single-parent households struggling to feed the family and, in some cases, a precarious immigration status (temporary residence, lack of legal status). Research on the education of young people in Brussels [Jacobs and Rea, 2007] has shown that these family situations often result in problems achieving success at school among the most unstable/fragile fractions of the working classes. As illustrated by all of the young people's accounts which made it possible to identify the NEET situations outside the system, these youths dropped out of school after ending up in the most dominant fields of education (vocational education) and reported that they had encountered multiple difficulties at school: change of study options, repeating years, change of school, being confronted with racist and denigrating remarks by teachers, educators or management, expulsions, difficulties in finding new schools, and early school leaving. The mismatch between their low cultural capital and the school institution categories is compounded by the economic conditions which weigh on the household. In the wake of Bourdieu and Passeron [1964] who highlighted the role of the school in legitimising social inequalities, some recent works [Millet and Croizet 2016] have illustrated the role of meritocracy in the construction of school inequalities. The analysis of their accounts indicates that, despite their objective difficulties, young people seem to adhere strongly to the idea of meritocracy and individual responsibility conveyed by the academic institution. Their academic difficulties, early school leaving and the “stupid things” they say they have done are often experienced and internalised as the consequence of their individual inadequacy at school and as their own responsibility. These are the same ideas that they mention to justify their paths away from institutions and into informal networks in order to support (even fully for some) the family economy, as well as to free themselves from their dominated social situation.

21On the other hand, young people no longer refer to individual responsibility when it comes to the police, but emphasise the responsibility of the state in their path to early school leaving. The frequent contacts with the police and the judicial system (when some of them are arrested) also contribute to the construction of their relationship to the Brussels institutions, which are eventually perceived as being opposed to their empowerment. This perception is reinforced by the fact that these young people see urban segregation and the difference in treatment (between rich and poor neighbourhoods, immigrant youth and white youth) as a form of racism. According to Nabil, this disinvestment of the state in the working-class neighbourhoods explains his path to early school leaving:

“In 2015, they asked us what we wanted – the municipality came. We asked for a new football pitch. But it took 3 years for them to put fences on concrete. They said it was because of the [drug] dealing. A young Belgian from Uccle would have his pitch. Three years to take this decision. During that time, I started to smoke, to do drugs and to deal, and I quit school (...) it made me lose my motivation about Belgium. I asked myself why I was not considered in the same way as Jérôme from Uccle.” (Field notes from an unrecorded comprehensive interview)

22In their comments, the desire for empowerment and the responsibility for one's own life path are therefore associated with the perceived racism within society: highly problematic relations with the police, which they have had to deal with frequently throughout their lives, lack of recognition of immigrant and/or Muslim minorities even though they helped to build the country during the post-war period, and non-recognition of diplomas obtained in the country of origin. As a result, the responsibility for one's own path and the desire for empowerment of these young people go hand in hand with a distrust of Brussels institutions which, in the best of cases, are perceived as not contributing to their social advancement, or, more generally, as forms of control.

23The analysis of the paths highlighted the structural causes which led them to turn mainly to informal and/or illicit channels in order to get by. The NEET situation outside the system, which refers to situations in which young people have dropped out of school, are neither working nor enrolled in training and do not make use of a support institution, is indeed the result of different factors, processes and chains of processes which are linked to structural inequalities within society. The frame of reference for young people in a situation outside the system revolves around the various “informal organisations” [Whyte, 1943] which structure the neighbourhoods studied. Non-use of institutions and services must be understood from this perspective, as these young people's experiences have taught them that they “can't count on anyone” but themselves. But we can see that these situations are not the result of individual decisions. Rather, they are the result of a chain of processes related to social inequalities in pathways, including how institutions are experienced within families via the experience of parents in their own dealings with institutions. Therefore, with Portes and Zhou [1993] we can say that the paths of these young people reflect a “downward assimilation”, which is likened to an urban “underclass”, to use the authors' expression. These young people identify mostly with the rather small peer group of companions in misfortune rather than with their ethnic community, and even less with mainstream society. Nevertheless, what these accounts convey is that this integration is experienced and – paradoxically – also accepted as a dividing line between them and the majority group, as well as the members of the community which they belong to, who persist in following “the system” which oppresses them. Downward assimilation can therefore also be a resource for these young people.

3.2.2. Discontinuous NEET situations

24Discontinuous NEET situations refer to non-stabilised work situations. In terms of family background, the young people in our sample come from relatively less vulnerable backgrounds than the young people we met in situations outside the system, but most of them come from modest working-class families. They also have more heterogeneous paths compared to those in situations outside the system. On the one hand, some of these young people were not in school or higher education, were not in training and did not have declared employment. On the other hand, others had recently been employed or had plans to return to school or undergo training. Also included in this category are youth with temporary work or who were undergoing training at the time of the survey, but who were at risk of being out of work or training or who, in the past, had been outside of any institution (declared work/training) for several months to a year. In other words, these are young people like Amir whose work situation is not stable and who waver between employment, training and unemployment, which is quite characteristic of the transitions from education to employment of low-skilled youth.

Amir stopped school in the fifth year of vocational training after changing study options several times. After going through a period of questioning outside of any institution and turning to the activities of informal organisations in the neighbourhood in order to get by, he finally found a fixed-term contract as a STIB prevention agent within the framework of a “first job agreement”, which gives him some stability, even if he does not want to think about what will come after this fixed-term contract at this stage. (Field notes)

25This type of NEET situation highlights the fact that the decisions of individuals do not depend on their attitude, but first and foremost on the lack of stable employment opportunities on the Brussels job market, which shapes discontinuous paths, especially for the less qualified. In this respect, they have in common that they did not finish their studies in the most valued streams of Belgian secondary education. While many of them – like youth in situations outside the system – have had complicated educational paths, the majority have nevertheless obtained a CESS, but in technical or vocational education, or have stopped their higher education at a time when it was well underway.

26Young people in discontinuous situations are critical of the relationship with institutions and services in the non-market sector, which they associate with the state. The bureaucratic procedures, the lack of listening, the judgment and even the suspicion towards users, cause some young people to use them only as a last resort or to stop using them, finding ways to work or to get the right training by mobilising their social capital. In other words, these young people criticise the ways in which the active social state is implemented, which they experience in their transitions from education to employment and which seem to contribute directly to the “bumps” on their paths. Aya's relationship with the CPAS is an example of these relationships.

The last time Aya was entitled to social benefits, she waited four months before going to the CPAS. During a previous visit, the social worker had made inappropriate remarks to her. She explains: I wanted to speed up my case, the administration, and I had to send an email, so I took out my second mobile phone which has 3G. And then the bloke commented, Ah, you've come to the CPAS, yet you have two mobile phones and 3G...’”. Aya therefore had a strong feeling that one had to be cunning in order not to have problems with the CPAS. For her, this was proof that the social worker was in fact not listening to her and accepting her for who she was, thus turning the issue of income into a moral issue rather than a legal issue. According to Aya, at the CPAS everything is very formal; there is no room for confiding in someone”. In addition to the administrative procedures, the judgment and lack of listening make Aya critical of the institutions. (Field notes)

27Thus, like young people in situations outside the system, the relationship with institutions, particularly school and the police, is shaped directly by forms of discrimination and racism, which young people say they have been victims of or have witnessed time and again. Nevertheless, unlike the former, the negative image which institutions give to young people does not lead them to turn to informal organisations. Unlike youth in situations outside the system, those in discontinuous situations have the desire to participate fully in mainstream society but feel held back due to prejudice against their origins.

28These paths further complicate the theoretical framework of segmented assimilation [Portes and Zhou, 1993] in that their “downward assimilation” is nevertheless marked by the incorporation of majority ideas and values. The feeling of exclusion corresponds to a situation of marginalisation rather than of total exclusion, where the frame of reference changes. This explains the different strategies used by youth in discontinuous situations. Thus, for example, although they identify with the neighbourhood, at the same time these young people feel its incapacitating limits, unlike their counterparts outside the system. Moreover, they are not building their future on informal organisations. Sometimes they even perceive the neighbourhood as a place of bad influences which lead them down the wrong path, and aspire to move to other places in the city.


29Our results indicate that NEET situations will not be resolved through programmes which view them in terms of individual employability. Our analysis indicates that NEET situations do not depend solely on young people's attitudes towards education or employment. In addition to the reproduction of social inequalities at school through various mechanisms, the organisation of work also fails to create stability for a significant number of young residents of Brussels in a situation of several types of domination. Without minimising their capacity for action and their strategies, the latter are subject to a series of discriminations, which – for young people from precarious households – are intertwined with the difficulties of their environment to create paths which distance them from school, socio-professional integration institutions (ISP) and the job market. Moreover, our analysis indicates that programmes attempting to address early school leaving and ISP issues of young people in Brussels from the NEET category may not reach those who need them most. The contrasting examples of NEET situations show how the period of “youth” takes very different forms depending on social background, migratory origin and their meeting points. Therefore, in order to achieve its objectives, public action for young people in NEET situations should include qualitative indicators which reflect the diversity of the problems and situations described above. They would make it possible to define priority groups by taking into account criteria such as the socio-economic index of the neighbourhoods of residence, household income and composition, qualifications of parents, and “educational background” (schools, courses of study). In sum, our analysis proposes to transform and refine the statistical category of NEET into a set of variables to be weighted and to include a cumulative dimension in order to establish risk indicators.

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1 Emic categories refer to the categories of the stakeholders as they formulate them, as opposed to etic categories which refer to those of the researchers.

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Géraldine André et Andrew Crosby, « To be or not to be NEET? The complexity of school-to-work transitions in Brussels »Brussels Studies [En ligne], Collection générale, n° 175, mis en ligne le 22 janvier 2023, consulté le 18 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Géraldine André

Géraldine André is a professor at UCLouvain. Within UCLouvain, she is a member of GIRSEF, an interdisciplinary research centre on socialisation, education and training. Her research interests lie in the fields of sociology of childhood, youth and education. With Andrew Crosby, she published The ‘NEET’ category from the perspective of inequalities: toward a typology of school-to-work transitions among youth from lower class neighborhoods in the Brussels region (Belgium) in the Journal of Youth Studies.

Andrew Crosby

Andrew Crosby is a visiting lecturer in the sociology of education and training (FOPA-UCL) and a research associate at BIRMM (VUB). With Géraldine André, he published The ‘NEET’ category from the perspective of inequalities: toward a typology of school-to-work transitions among youth from lower class neighborhoods in the Brussels region (Belgium) in the Journal of Youth Studies. He obtained his doctorate at ULB with ethnographic research regarding the detention centres of the immigration office in Belgium. He contributed to the book Migration Control in Practice (PUB, 2022).

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