The demography of free time

Even as we continue to feel a wrenching pain at the latest instances of individual and institutional brutality, we need to think harder about the poison in the air. Any casual observer of today's India is familiar with the sight of armies of young men charging through the streets on two-wheelers making threatening noises or, at other times, indulging in violence. Who are these men? How are they assembled to spread fear and to do harm? Shouldn't they be too busy to sign up for a malicious cause? I want to hazard some guesses here about the demographic make-up of these men with time to kill.

The International Labour Organization and several national governments now use the once condescending term, NEET, to refer to persons who are 'Not in Education, Employment or Training'. Originally, the term referred to high-school dropouts in England.

Counting NEETs is a way to gauge good or bad trends in education and employment, but there is another interesting underlying trope: NEETs are people with plenty of free time, time that non-NEETs are using up at school (or college), in jobs, or in skill acquisition. As we look for ways to get them back to education or jobs, we also need to look more closely at the demographic characteristics of NEETs and the ways in which they spend their freewheeling days.

'Officially' counted NEETs are more likely to be young (aged 15-29), female, urban and not very poor. According to ILO, in India in 2012, 50 per cent of women aged 15-24 were NEETs compared to just 8 per cent of men. Over 20 per cent of young men with an intermediate or advanced 'education' were unemployed compared to 12 per cent of those without a basic education.

However, qualitative data tell us that there are errors in the official estimates of the number of NEETs. First, female NEETs tend to be over-estimated because a lot of the work that women do in poor countries is unpaid labour, which does not enter employment statistics but, nevertheless, keeps them busy and indoors. Second, male NEETs tend to be undercounted because it is common for young, unemployed men to keep up the pretence of being busy. Very often, this appearance of busyness is achieved by registering for one course or academic degree after another.

Strictly speaking, these men are NETs ('Not in Employment or Training) and not NEETs, but in effect they are NEETs because their participation in education is notional. This is evident from the huge spurt in privately operated 'colleges' and 'training institutes' that churn out 'graduates' who are largely unemployable. Anthropologists have documented how registration in these centres is little more than a semi-respectable way of waiting for a job; none actually expects these students to be attending classes; hanging around tea and cigarette stalls is how they spend large parts of their day.

Anthropologists have also written about 'timepass', the term used by young, idle men to describe the variety of things they do to inch the day forward - smoking, arguing, passing explicit remarks against women, and such other activities to expend their energy. Cynical political leaders understand this urge to fight all too well. It is hardly surprising that the visuals of vigilante groups assaulting others are crowded with jeans and t-shirt clad young men venting their manufactured rage on their victims.

From these visuals, we cannot infer another likely background characteristic of these young men - if they are NEETs, they are also less likely to be married than non-NEETs. Data from the National Sample Survey of India confirm that unemployed young men are more likely to be unmarried than employed men, and that the gap in marital status between the two seems to be rising over time, especially in urban areas.

Why does this matter? It matters because marriage, like a job, is one way of giving a young man in India a larger stake in life. Having a spouse reduces the risks one is willing to take in life because there are physical and emotional demands on one's sense of responsibility and on one's time.

Ironically, the rise of the unmarried among NEETs can be partially attributed to another class of NEETs at the other end of the world. Scores of young, married, well-off women crowd the western world of social activism. Having worked for four years in a well-meaning non-governmental organization in Washington DC, I saw first-hand how eager these NEETs are to do something for women in poor countries. One of the most visible and well-funded causes of their advocacy is to delay marriage. By implication, they are also working for delayed child-bearing and slower population growth.

In a society that imposes segregation of the sexes, one unanticipated outcome of the enforced singlehood of young men is a rise in the number of those with time on their hands and resentment in their hearts. In a nice twist, one popular activity for these men is to impose gender segregation on others. The harassment of couples on Valentine's Day demonstrates this.

These UM-NETs - unmarried males not in employment or training - and UM-NEETs - unmarried males not in education, employment or training - are best stirred to action by the fomenting of hate. As we learn anew each day, nothing excites emotion and propels action as much as some easily identifiable enemy, an enemy that is too weak to hit back. Until it does hit back.


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