The Class of 2013
This year’s graduates grew up in the boom, went to college in the bust and now face an uncertain future. A group of award-winning student journalists assess their hopes, fears and prospects...
Up and away: graduates are again facing the possiblity of having to emigrate. Illustration. Éna Brennan
The graduates of 2013 have been formed by boom and bust. The students who have just finished their final exams and are about to step outside education for the first time grew up in a society that was one of the wealthiest in the world. GDP per capita almost tripled, going from less than €15,000 in 1995, when my peers and I were toddlers, to just under €45,000 by 2007, when we had reached school-leaving age. Unemployment went from 12 per cent in 1995 to 4 per cent five years later – and stayed around there until 2008, the longest period in the history of the State. In the early 1990s Ireland struggled to break into the top 20 states in the UN’s Human Development Index. By 2006 it had reached the top four.
These were real improvements, while they lasted, and despite the delusions that may have also been part of Celtic Tiger Ireland there is a residue of confidence among those who were forged by that period. Time magazine recently called US millennials “lazy, entitled narcissists”. College students in Ireland seldom match that stereotype.
In our early years we experienced Ireland not as a small, dependent postcolonial state struggling at Europe’s periphery, as our parents’ generation did, but as one that was at its apex. In the Republic’s richest period we were its “most educated generation ever” – the ground troops of the pharmaceutical and IT knowledge economy that was to cement its long-term prosperity.
Prof Jim Deegan of the University of Limerick’s Kemmy Business School says this hasn’t necessarily prepared us well for entering the labour force. “I think it would be accurate to say young people are confident. People grew up in good circumstances when things were perhaps a little easy. But confidence shouldn’t be confused with competence. If graduates’ outlook is Panglossian, not tempered by a realistic view of what’s expected of them by employers in the labour market, then that would be a problem.”
Competitiveness and individualism can have their drawbacks, too. The pressure to succeed can be difficult to cope with, and individualism can turn people away from social difficulties such as unemployment, mental-health problems and poverty.
Memories of the Celtic Tiger’s expanded horizons and conspicuous wealth are difficult to shift. But, for most graduates today, its legacy is frustrated ambition. There was a time when the future looked certain for young people in Ireland. Get a degree, become a professional in a reasonably secure job and join the asset-price carousel. No more. What future vision exists now extends weeks and months rather than years, as the economic malaise creates a mist of insecurity about job and life prospects.
Young people have increasingly been cast in a peripheral role, whether as cannon fodder for cheap labour at home or as emigrants, heading oversees in their tens of thousands to find work.
Youth unemployment rose again in February, with 30.8 per cent of the country’s under-25s out of work. This contrasts with 15.1 per cent of the workforce as a whole. The difficult situation for those out of work was compounded by disproportionate cuts to young people’s welfare payments in the 2010 budget.
The jobseeker’s allowance was cut from €204.30 to €150 per week for new claimants aged 22 to 24; the payment was cut in half, to €100, for those aged 20 and 21. Add the reduced window of jobseeker’s benefit for those who’ve lost jobs, and tightening eligibility criteria for benefits across the board, and it begins to form a picture.
Then there is the rise of internship culture, which stories inside this section offer an insight to. Unpaid internships were becoming a rung on the employment ladder before the crash, but their endorsement by the State through the JobBridge programme has normalised them. For anyone who does get on the employment ladder the work is often casualised or part time. Part-time working hours fell 5.6 per cent in 2011, after a 6.8 per cent decline between 2008 and 2010.
The alternative to joining this nearly workforce, or the dole queue, or just living at home off our parents, is emigration. The National Youth Council of Ireland reported this month that 300,000 people have left since the crash. In 2011 43 per cent of those leaving were aged 15 to 24; 35,700 young people emigrated in the year to April 2012.
But the destinations that once provided safe haven for Irish emigres are now not such sure places of employment themselves: the worldwide recession means the US and Britain have their own unemployment crises.
Others have gone farther afield. Pádraig McCarrick from Tubbercurry, in Co Sligo, found work as an English teacher in South Korea after completing a master’s in history at NUI Maynooth. Emigration was his only option to have “any sort of life outside of lining up for the dole every week”, he says. “I’ve always wanted to travel but would have much preferred to have earned my money working in Ireland than have to move 10,000km away in order to just earn a living.”
How does he think this generation’s experience with emigration might contrast with previous ones? “I think everyone’s experience of emigration differs. Some finally find the acknowledgment they deserve; others, unfortunately, fall between the cracks. Homesickness and culture shock, especially for those working in countries of a nonwestern culture, can be pretty hard on people.”
For others, emigration has opened doors. Daniel Murphy left Ireland for Canada in 2011 after completing a degree in computer science at University College Dublin. While there he cofounded Solas.ca, an accommodation service that allows people to search for rentals from Canada’s most popular websites. Murphy returned in 2012, and although he says that “computing is one of the few thriving industries left” in Ireland, and that he has no problem finding work, he adds that economic conditions aren’t great. “About 50 per cent of my own friends have moved abroad for the foreseeable future.”
To some extent the recession has affected our ability to consume culture. Robert Kearns, a recent graduate from Mullingar, in Co Westmeath, is one of the founders of the arts festival 10 Days in Dublin. “People want to go experience something cool; they might want a couple of drinks before, after or during; they might want to eat beforehand; and then they need to get home afterwards. The fact is that a lot of young people are unemployed or on seriously restrictive wages.”
Has there been a cultural response to the changed economic circumstances? “I’ve seen a lot of great work which looks directly at the sadness and struggle of the situation, and I’ve also seen artists taking innovative steps towards funding and promoting their work – the rise of crowdfunding is a great example of this – but I’m always more excited by work which just says, ‘Yeah, we’re still here, and we’re still going to create things that excite us.’ ”
Culture has also been democratised during our time at college. The internet offers a conduit for the full process of cultural reproduction: creation, dissemination and consumption. And it does so on a global scale, both creating a space for a much broader range of people to be involved in this process and homogenising experiences of it.
Aoife O’Brien is webmaster of the Robotics Society at Trinity College Dublin and technical officer of its Sci-Fi Society. She says information technology has made it easier for people to express themselves, “not only because it’s now so much easier to create content like videos, pictures or audio but because previously you had to go to a magazine, newspaper or TV to share these things”.
People of my age have also grown up in a more multicultural society, including in higher education. In 2011-2, 92.9 per cent of university students were classified as ethnically Irish by the Higher Education Authority; the number was 87.9 per cent for institutes of technology.
Luke Bukha of Anti Racism Network Ireland says technology also has a cosmopolitanising effect. “There is more understanding because people are connected to and interacting with parts of the world that they never have been before. Mainstream culture has also provided examples of people from different racial backgrounds in positions of power – Barack Obama in the United States, but also in sport, with Tiger Woods, Lewis Hamilton, the Williams sisters.”
This generation of graduates has come to politics at a time when some of Ireland’s most prominent institutions have seen an erosion of influence. The Catholic Church may count 84 per cent of the population of the Republic among its flock, but its cultural hegemony has fallen away substantially because of its scandals and the rise of scepticism. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin admitted in 2011 that many young people retain only a marginal interest in religion.
In the political sphere, too, long-standing bastions of power have less grip than they once did. Fianna Fáil, by far the State’s most successful political party, was reduced to its smallest size of the modern era in the 2011 general election. Confidence in political parties and government remains thin, as our straw poll on page 3 demonstrates.
But this loss of faith in institutions is not as total among Irish youth as it has been among those in Europe and the Middle East in recent years. Fidelity to the state, the law and capitalism remains strong. The result is a generation characterised more by cynicism than by insurrection.
The individual confidences bred during the Celtic Tiger seem not to have produced the kind of collective assurance that enabled adolescents of previous crises to propose divergent social visions.
Young people in Ireland largely resemble their parents in their party politics. In a Red C poll earlier this year 18- to 34-year-olds gave Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil their highest shares of support, at 25 per cent and 21 per cent, with the only significant difference from national averages being stronger support for Sinn Féin, at 20 per cent.
Deirdre Bonham of Young Fine Gael puts this down to “an acceptance of the serious situation that the current Government faces” and being “more willing to use democracy and the ballot box to get its message across when it comes to Government policy”.
One arena where there has been a renewal of challenging ideas and debate is the women’s movement. Feminist and gender-equality societies have been growing in Ireland’s universities. Although opinions on abortion vary among young people, a poll by Red C in January found that 18- to 34-year-olds had by far the most liberal attitudes, with the plurality supporting a woman’s right to choose and only 9 per cent opposing abortion.
Reflecting this position, the Union of Students in Ireland reaffirmed its pro-choice position at March’s annual congress. Its equality and citizenship officer, Laura Harmon, says groups like the Feminist Open Forum and the National Women’s Council of Ireland’s Y-Factor project “provided avenues for young women and men to get engaged and become active on women’s-rights issues”.
She says the resurgence in the women’s movement comes at a time when young people are becoming conscious of historical injustices. “I think this is evident when we look at a range of different issues, including the Magdalene laundries, the horror of symphysiotomy procedures women had to undergo and our history of putting women in psychiatric hospitals. Added to this is the gender pay gap, under-representation in politics and the media, and the lack of affordable childcare.”
Despite the lack of a broad anti-austerity campaign it was students who produced one of the first and most significant shocks of the crisis in Ireland. The November 2010 sit-in against fee increases and grant cuts saw a bloody confrontation with the Garda that suggested a path more like that of Greece or Spain than the relative peace we have seen since. But since then student political activity has fallen away on campuses. National marches began shrinking before being shelved in favour of smaller local protests. Students’ union elections by and large steer clear of ideological battles.
Aidan Rowe, a member of Free Education for Everyone who led the 2010 sit-in, says it was significant as “the only large-scale student protest in recent memory that’s departed from the usual script of politely making our point by walking through town and then basically being ignored. We seemed to, pretty much by accident, tap into an energy and an anger that hasn’t really been evident on student protests since.”
Despite this it had a polarising effect, he says. “There were some for whom it was a radicalising moment and others who were scared off from political activity.”
The graduates of 2013 are the first in Irish history to experience such a sharp boom and bust. It has produced a distinctive generation in terms of how we see ourselves and interpret our society. Years from now our identity, values and behaviours will probably be the subjects of study in the universities we’ve just left. But today, trying to establish ourselves in a broken economy, we’re learning whether Ireland’s “children of the future” can adapt to conditions that look a lot more like those of the past.