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Analysis by Keith Rankin.

From 1986 until the beginning of 2016, Statistics New Zealand, through the Household Labour Force Survey, collected data on people “not in the labour force, by main activity”.

These data considerably understate these “main activities”, because many people whose main activity is neither employment nor unemployment are nevertheless counted as being in the labour force; employment or job-seeking are secondary activities for them.

This month’s chart shows persons aged over 15 classed as having zero attachment to the labour force, and whose main activity is neither education, caring for children, nor retirement. It shows, at least since the mid-1980s, that between six and seven percent of the working-age population are unaccounted for. In 2016, that’s 235,000 people; considerably more than those officially counted as unemployed.

A few of these invisibles will be people caring for other adults. A new dataset for those “not in the labour force, by main activity”, with data only for early 2016, shows 24,000 such people caring for adults, leaving 211,000 unaccounted for.

The new dataset removes the category of ‘retirement’, so most of the 470,000 people classed in the new data as in “free‑time activities” or in “own care due to sickness/injury/disability” are people who would probably be over-65 and in retirement. The new dataset renders completely invisible those aged 25 to 64 without attributable main activities.

There is little interest in collecting statistics about people who do not fit convenient statistical categories. Policymakers generally do not see the invisibles as a problem; they do not see them at all. Except, that is, they have started taking an interest in NEETs, defined as people aged 15-24 who are not in employment, education or training. It’s a pity that these NEET statistics are restricted – for no obvious reason – to persons under 25. These are the ‘naughty’ young people, who supposedly reflect failures of the education system. Thus, there may be a political agenda to generate awareness only of the young invisibles.

There’s no obvious trend in the three decades of data shown here. The main point is that there are so many people whose lives do not fit the roles we expect them to fit. There has been too little interest in those who are defined only by what they do not do.