The Corner

Bone Idle

For some reason, this story from the London Telegraph struck me as very sad–and, in some way I haven’t yet figured out, portentous. 

The phenomenon of NEETs (young people “not in education, employment or training”) is on the rise.  More than 1.2 million 16- to 24-year-olds in England, Scotland and Wales – almost a fifth of the age group – are spending their time doing literally nothing, according to a study published last week. Among their ranks are the troubled, the badly educated, and the feckless and work-shy. In the 16 to 19 age bracket, 11 per cent are classed as Neets – double the proportion in Germany and France.  

Britain’s Labor government has been busy as all get out for a decade now with publicly-funded schemes for training, further education, and “attempts to push youngsters towards a more productive and useful life.”  These efforts, says the Telegraph report, have

proved … costly and ineffective.  More than half [of the youngsters enrolled] fail to finish government apprenticeships. A £100 million reward-card scheme, which encouraged members to stay on by giving them ‘loyalty points,’ has been scrapped after an evaluation found that it was a flop. The £500 million education maintenance allowance, which pays up to £30 a week to 400,000 youngsters from low-income families in school or college, while hailed as a success, has not had a major impact on the UK’s 70 per cent staying-on rate, which remains one of the lowest in Europe.

It is, I believe, a fundamental fact about human life that most of us, given the opportunity, would be bone idle.  History offers plenty of evidence for this.  In almost every country, in almost every age, there has been a class of people who could live without doing any useful work.  Guess what?  They did.  There were of course honorable exceptions.  Charles Darwin could have got through life doing nothing at all; likewise the mathematician Edmund Landau, who was a famously hard worker.  I think National Review’s own founder belongs on this roll of honor, too.  If you survey the massed ranks of the English aristocracy, though, or the offspring of American plutocrats (though there is a bit more to be said there), most of them spent their lives in play–or, like these young NEETs, in nothing at all.  From Mrs. Thrale’s Anecdotes of Dr. Johnson:

The vacuity of Life had at some early Period of his Life perhaps so struck upon the Mind of Mr Johnson, that it became by repeated Impression his favourite hypothesis, & the general Tenor of his reasonings commonly ended in that.  The Things therefore which other Philosophers attribute to various & contradictory Causes, appeared to him uniform enough; all was done to fill up the Time upon his Principle.  One Man for example was profligate, followed the Girls or the Gaming Table,–Why Life must be filled up Madam, & the Man was capable of nothing less Sensual.  Another was active in the management of his Estate & delighted in domestick Oeconomy:  Why a Man must do something, & what so easy to a narrow mind as hoarding halfpence until they turn into Silver?  a Third was conspicuous for maternal Tenderness, and spent her youth in caressing or instructing her Children–Enquire however before you commend, cries he; & you will probably perceive that either her want of health or Fortune prevented her from tasting the Pleasures of the World:  I once talked to him of a Gentleman who loved his Friend–He has nothing else to do, replies Johnson; Make him prime Minister, & see how long his Friend will be remembered.

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