Age of entitlement

Sat, Nov 21, 2009, 00:00

PROSPECTS:Opportunities are no longer knocking for our best and brightest. So how are they coping with current economic woes in addition to the completely normal uncertainties of being twentysomething?

Postgrad degrees, unpaid internships, years out - and still no notion of where they're going. For an increasing number of privileged, intelligent and articulate twentysomethings, that's the quandary, and for once, this is not about the hopes and dreams of a lost generation.

Some would say it's about a cohort who grew up believing that the world was their oyster and the perfect job was a realistic goal. Stir in supportive, perhaps indulgent, parents and instant, take-as-much-as-you-need student loans and maybe the word spoilt springs to mind.

Others would say that with the democratisation of third-level education, an undergraduate degree became the new Leaving Certificate. This was fine for graduates who chose to follow the money offered at the milk round sales pitches (delivered with free wine and canapes) and carried on into what promised to be glittering careers in law and accountancy.

Then there were those who worked equally hard and graduated with good degrees and dreams of . . . what? They didn't know. And back then, it hardly mattered. They were emerging into an Ireland - said the grown-ups - filled with choice and promise. You can be whatever you want. And you have all the time in the world, sure you're only in your 20s.

And then the world changed. So what happened next? Are they still holding out for the perfect job? Have they adapted to the new reality? Is a master's just an upmarket gap year? Six twentysomethings give a personal perspective.

Susie O'Carroll (22)

Co Kildare

FETED BY GAA commentators as "heroic" and "brilliant", camogie star and UCD graduate Susie O'Carroll has enough awards ceremonies to attend to keep her occupied for a year. She has received the Soaring Star award, UCD Player of the Year and Kildare Player of the Year. Her days are spent coaching the Celbridge under-18s and under-21s. "Without the GAA, I'd be doing nothing," she says.

O'Carroll, who has an undergraduate degree in economics and finance and a master's degree in economics, is currently unemployed, but "not really" worried.

"I don't know what I want to do, so I don't know where to start. Everything usually falls into place, though, doesn't it?" Her laid-back attitude can be attributed partly, she thinks, to her position in the family. "I'm the youngest, so there are four people looking out for me, especially a very generous older sister." It is also down to her low-maintenance lifestyle, which means she doesn't worry about money. "I suppose I don't really spend money. I live at home and only need money to go out, which is about €50 per week. I'm not on the dole, because I suppose I need the motivation to get a job."

Did she consider going on to do a PhD, like some of her classmates? "By the end of the master's I was done with college, and wasn't worried about not getting a job. A lot of my friends did physiotherapy and now have no choice but to go to New Zealand or Australia. I wouldn't like to have no other choice than to go off to New Zealand or Australia."

She "definitely" does not want to go into finance, but "maybe something in economics". And what is she doing now? "Well, I'm reading Pride and Prejudiceat the moment. I've started to recycle and compost, do a bit of ironing and hang out with my sister - and watch The X Factor on Saturday night." Her grin suggests she might not be entirely serious about some of these activities.

Bart Storan (23)

Co Wicklow

BART STORAN IS the anti-whine. "The wrong thing to do now is leave Ireland. There's a lot of opportunity in Ireland as a result of the recession. As a nation, we're loath to see it. We're standing on the cusp of something exciting, and I really think it's time to roll up our sleeves and finally get something done."

Storan has a history and politics degree from Trinity, and a master's in human rights from London School of Economics. He was working with Landmine Action in Liberia when he got a call from his old room-mate, Andy Byrne, telling him about the second Lisbon Treaty referendum. He went straight from the airport to the inaugural meeting of Generation Yes. A successful campaign, run by Storan, was born.

"Apathy has been the name of the game for too long, but we've also been very quick to point the finger, especially at politicians. It's time to start taking some individual responsibility. That's what Generation Yes was about; it was saying 'I'm not going to let all this pass me by.' "

Working in Liberia (which has 85 per cent unemployment) was a major influence on the positive and proactive outlook he sustains now that he is back home.

"When I came back to Ireland and people were still moaning about various things - such as the €1,500 university registration fee - I knew that Liberia definitely informed the way I looked at the recession."

Other influences include his alma mater, Blackrock College, which taught him that "you can do whatever you want if you have the idea and the drive", and his father, who advised him during his CAO applications "to do what I enjoy, because I'll be good at it. So I did history and politics and haven't looked back since."

With an interest in working in the private sector "because it will allow me to challenge myself and take risks", Storan is otherwise unsure what the future holds.

"But I'm not scared by that. I don't know what will happen, but a certain degree of uncertainty is exciting. I'm in a place now where I've done a bit, I have qualifications and I feel like the world is my oyster. I know I love politics and definitely have the bug. It's the only way to make any real difference.

"I love Ireland and I feel a definite responsibility to get involved. It is a disaster and lots of mistakes have been made, but to up and leave, that definitely isn't the solution. We're a versatile and hard-working nation, but I think we're terrified of success. When I set up a political party, its motto will be 'Be Not Afraid of Greatness'."

Aoife Breheny (27)

Co Wicklow

ASKED FOR HER ultimate dream, Aoife Breheny says: "I'd love to have an olive farm. When I came back from travelling I thought about what would make me happy and I realised that would be working, reading and writing on my olive farm. Also, I wanted to understand the different types of olive and how they're grown, and import them myself, instead of paying Irish deli prices." With a degree and a master's in philosophy from UCD, she considered a PhD, but decided she didn't know where it would end up.

Arriving home after a year's travelling was the reality check. "That's when I became really worried and felt under pressure to have it all sorted out. I'd always been interested in equality issues, and I suppose I could have applied to NGOs and think tanks with the degrees I had, but I thought a course in international politics in Edinburgh would heighten my awareness. Stemming from my philosophy background, I have a need to understand in a cognitive way exactly how and why things work and exist. Basically, I thought it would focus me."

But was the second master's not as risky as the PhD she had considered? "Maybe the master's gave a false sense of security, but it gave more of an immediate result, unlike the PhD. And with politics, there's no way of avoiding it. It's in everything.

"I've finished the course in Edinburgh, and I do feel it has given me some kind of direction at last, and a way to mesh philosophy and politics. I didn't expect to connect with policy reform, but realised that social issues encompass philosophical concepts and can be analysed down to a theoretical level.

"I'd love to work on prostitution [her dissertation title was Issue Linking: Prostitution and Sex-Trafficking in the EU] or assisted dying as policy issues, and make an indent into how both are discussed in politics." Might there have been a quicker way to this? "Actually, maybe I could have paid a really good guidance counsellor and got the same result."

She pays tribute to her father for his influence and support. "To him, education is more important than anything - learning and understanding over results and marks. But yeah, I'm still worried because it's all so up in the air. I think doing 'artsy' degrees such as philosophy means you'll be in flux. You finish the degree and you can either go off and do something different and unrelated or do a PhD.

"I think we have to trust that it will all come to bear in some way eventually, and have a bit of faith that things will work out. What else can we do?"

Sarah Player (28)


"I WAS ALL for the moment and didn't care about the future," is how Sarah Player (right) describes herself, aged 17, when she spent a year working in a children's home in South Africa after her Leaving Certificate. She arrived home with aspirations of joining the UN or doing psychology and German in UCD, but realised that the year in South Africa had taken its toll.

"I was in a very negative head space after what I'd seen there and knew I didn't have the discipline to get through psychology that year." So she got a degree in philosophy and archaeology, but knew it wasn't for her. "I had the interest, but no real passion, so I bought a round-the-world ticket and went travelling alone for a year. And really, it was the greatest thing I ever did. I became me."

But it was the arrival home - "on a buzz" - to friends who were earning €30,000 that started the worry. "I've had my fun, what will I do now? I knew I couldn't waltz around forever, so I looked into postgraduate courses. I definitely had the fear and knew I needed some direction."

For Player, this was opting for the higher diploma in psychology in Trinity and emerging top of her class. But she still could not see her perfect path. At the moment she is living and working in Copenhagen with her boyfriend, who has completed a postgraduate course there.

"I found a job with an international events management company - I know, completely unrelated to what I'd studied or had experience in - and it's a cool job and has done a lot for my confidence, given me a taste of independence and allowed me to sink my teeth into stuff. But it's still not my dream job. In situations like mine, I think mental attitude is very important.

"We're privileged, intelligent and articulate. But a big problem is that I, and a lot of people like me, have in their head the idea of a 'perfect' job, and there's no such thing. We think too big and big is, of course, possible - some people obviously do get the UN job on their first attempt. But for the vast majority that's not the way it is. So what we should be doing is aiming a bit lower initially, and working up from there. At the moment I'm looking for a job with lots of transferable skills. I want a job that pays enough to keep me going and that I can learn from, but I also want to do other extracurricular things such as volunteering and mentoring, because that's how to get into the bigger things."

And the plan for now? "I'm going to stay in Copenhagen until at least March, and look for jobs in the meantime. I've made these choices and I don't regret anything I've done - but I know I still have a lot of work to do to get the satisfaction, money and stability I'd like."

Gillian Tuite (23)

Co Meath

TRINITY GRADUATE and long-time music lover Gillian Tuite (left) is lucky to have a plan that, for the moment at least, is going better than expected.

"Initially I decided to study law, because I did well in school and saw it as a secure career choice. I was also advised to 'use' my points. I had two interests, law and music, and it just seemed more logical at the time to pursue law.

"Some friends put down law and medicine. Imagine that - leaving that major decision in the hands of the CAO? I was good at debating and had no interest in medicine."

Did she ever feel she was missing out on the music for a four-year law degree? "Not really. When I was in college I gigged a bit. Every time I went on stage, I thought about how happy that made me. So I made a decision to focus on law for four years and then to look at my music options again."

With consistent good grades, and a stint as secretary of Trinity's student Law Review in 2008, she must have been tempted to join the clamour for jobs in Dublin's prestigious corporate law firms? "No, I just knew I wasn't ready. And I'd heard about a music course in Ballyfermot [College of Further Education], so I put a demo together, did the audition and that was it."

Now in her second and final year of a diploma in contemporary music performance, she is glowing with optimism.

"I'll always have my law degree - which I really enjoyed - but also I finally have a purpose and a focus in music. You're in a course with others who share your passion, and you see what you can do and it gives you inspiration. There's a real focus on preparing you for the real world and making sure you do things right before going 'public'.

"I hope to have a portfolio of songs by May and some sort of direction. If nothing else comes out of it, at least I'll have had the most fantastic time doing something I've always wanted to do. With the economy the way it is, I think it's definitely easier to feel downhearted and that so many things are beyond your control."

Part-time restaurant work has removed some of the "unemployment anxiety", but what mostly worries her is not living up to her own expectations.

"I am terrified of this time next year and not having anything to do. At the same time, though, I firmly believe there are different ways to make yourself happy, and I'm aware I'll have to make a choice at some stage. As much as I love music, I don't want to keep doing it if I'm not doing it well. So I'll eventually have to set a cut-off point, I'm just not sure when that will be yet."

Stephen Meredith (26)

Co Laois

ASK STEPHEN MEREDITH why younger people are increasingly unsure, and he says ruefully: "We don't know what we want to do yet. And some of us are too idealistic."

Meredith, a politics graduate of the Magee campus of University of Ulster and the University of Edinburgh, attributes much of the current indecision to his generation growing up believing they could "do whatever we want. We never had to worry about not being able to do something because we've always had so many options and expectations. Supportive parents, the availability of credit and the fact that there was never a notion in my family of not going to college meant I was always aware of choices I had."

After completing his Leaving Certificate at Wesley College, Dublin, Meredith wanted to "escape the familiarity of Dublin", so, despite his parents' misgivings, he headed for Derry.

Grainne McGregor, senior career development adviser at Magee, became a major influence. "She encouraged me to do a lot of things, such as seek an internship with a local newspaper in Derry, apply for a scholarship to study in Nebraska and teach English in Japan for two years."

Would it be fair to say he has never been sure of life's grand plan? "Yeah. I suppose I've constantly been in flux. In fact, if the economy had stayed great, I think I'd still be in this situation."

While he has no regrets about the decisions he took to travel - "these experiences have really shaped me" - he's also quick to acknowledge the drawbacks. "Obviously, it's great that we get to experience lots of things, but I don't think we're as focused because we've had that luxury. It also probably means we're postponing the inevitable."

But what is the inevitable? "I still don't know what I want to do, but I'm apprehensive enough. I think I should probably get my act together and figure things out. As you get older, stability and familiarity become more important, something we used to sneer at. I suppose we've been running away to experience new things, but we can only stay away so long.

"I'd like to go to Washington DC, but that's the easy way out, isn't it? I'd love to do something in Ireland, but I've become so disillusioned by the whole system that I'm totally at odds with what I could do with it or in it. So my next move is to take on an internship with the Scottish Fair Trade Forum, try and make my way to DC and continue to ponder. Hmm, master's, year out, unpaid internships - where does it all end?"