25 years on, how different are we?
In 1987, the Economist magazine carried a bleak feature on Ireland. We were “easily the poorest country in rich, north-west Europe”, mainly because we had been trying to ape the lifestyle of our most recent (British) overlords but without their resources and were drowning in “extravagance, frustration and debt” as a result. If that was too subtle, the illustration was a picture of a young woman and child, begging on the streets.
Unemployment was at 18 per cent; ordinary tax rates had soared to 60 per cent; the national debt was 125 per cent while economic growth had averaged 0.2 per cent over the previous five years. Corruption, tax evasion and child abuse were rampant.
In the North, an SAS ambush had left eight IRA men and one civilian dead, so the IRA blew up 11 innocents in Enniskillen on Remembrance Day. In the Republic, we voted Fianna Fáil and Charles Haughey into a minority government.
Not much to be nostalgic about there. Yet, 25 years on, the received wisdom is that while we may have been dirt poor, we were a kinder, more thrifty, respectful people, happy to pass an evening debating radical ideas over a simple bowl of pasta, grateful for any boring or menial job. Credit had yet to be “liberated”, the internet was unknown and there were no “foreigners” coming in.
This is what makes the Ipsos MRBI 50th anniversary poll on attitudes and values so compelling. It allows us to compare ourselves then and now. And sometimes it throws up surprising results.
Were we actually more thrifty 25 years ago? Sure that no one in 1987 dared to spend money without thinking? In fact, more than one in five of us did; about as many as do it now, particularly if they happen to be students and/or living in Dublin.
Were we more conscious of debt 25 years ago? Nine out of 10 of us didn’t like the idea of it then and don’t like it now, and that applies right across age, gender and socioeconomic classes.
We watch our spending more carefully now and a lot more of us (nearly seven in 10) think we’re “very good” at managing money. That suggests that seven in 10 think it’s all under control. Can that be right? Is it credible that this behaviour by the vast majority is being generated in the same country where, allegedly, “we all partied”?
Or was there always this unheralded, unsexy, solid core throughout the boom? Given the relentless backbeat of uncertainty and economic doom, the fact that seven in 10 of us claim to be “perfectly happy” with our standard of living now, compared with only six in 10 in 1987, is downright startling. More remarkable still is a 3 per cent difference in attitude between those at work, and those out of work, who say they are happy.
So did a core of 70 per cent in fact keep its head? Or are we simply the most adaptable population on the planet?
When the question of euthanasia was raised, only a quarter of the 55+ group thought it should be legalised; but more than 40 per cent of the 35- to 54 year-olds were in favour. Still, at least a lot of the older group don’t have to worry about the jobs market any more.