A generation war in waiting?
THE PARENTS:Does this generation think their parents squandered the Tiger’s spoils? Do the parents feel guilty?
THE GENERATION fading out has always had the bitter word about the one coming of age. Mainly, they were looking at a crowd of lazy little gits with no concept of proper hard work or a tidy room. The younger set saw only grumpy aul’ lads refusing to accept their time was up.
The recession though has turned more than an economy on its head. The image now is of the reckless Boomers racing for the cruise ships, their safari jackets bulging with lump sums and defined benefit pensions, leaving Generation Next to flounder in a legacy of Boomer debt. The drumbeats sound out a new kind of generation war.
So, are the young bitterly resentful of their parents, who – by this analysis – squandered the boom, squirreled away shedloads of cash from “downsizing” and made off with the spoils? Do parents feel culpable? One recently retired public servant certainly isn’t – although he prefers to remain anonymous.
“Better to look at those in all sections of society, private and public, who during the boom have prospered out of all proportion to what was the norm.”
In his view, anybody earning less than €100,000 a year cannot be said to have run away with the spoils. “Think of what that is after tax, especially where there is a mortgage to pay and a family to support.
“Ironically, this is my third recession in living memory. Back then, we tightened our belts and lived a bit frugally, upskilling and advancing our education even while holding down full-time jobs while parenting as best we could. Then, when opportunity presented itself, we were in a position to take full advantage of it. There is a message in this for the younger generation.”
His 22-year-old privately educated son, who has just finished university and works long hours in a supermarket, sees a class divide rather than a generational one. Without the “flawed business model . . . of the massive bonuses” and resulting threat to pension entitlements, his father would have continued to work until he was 65, he says.
“He offered to finish teaching his final-year undergraduates for free after his retirement date in the hope that their results would not be affected. From what I have seen at home anyway, there is a lot more to many public service jobs that what they are given credit for.”
So, no generation war in that house – or in Margaret Moore’s. “We feel just as let down by what happened as anyone else,” says Margaret (52), a mother of three who, with her husband Barry, runs Photogenic, a successful photographic studio in Dalkey, Co Dublin.
Their daughter Rae (25), an unemployed architect, has no quibble with that.
Neither are there portents of war in Julie Byrne’s house in Celbridge, Co Kildare.
Julie (54), a clinical nurse in education, once told her daughter, Sheila, that “there would always be a need for nurses and teachers”. However despite achieving a first in her HDip and having applied for hundreds of jobs in her English, classical studies and CSPE subjects, Sheila is now working almost full time in a Dublin city bar, a routine broken by occasional teacher-subbing days.
Does she blame her older colleagues for the new two-tier system? “I don’t want to think about that too much because I don’t want to be angry at my colleagues who were lucky enough to get in when they did. It’s not their fault. They would have lived through the 1980s, so when they were my age, having young families, things would have been very difficult. They do know what it was like. My parents would have known what it was like.”
Resources could have been handled differently, she believes. “At a much higher level to me, pay and bonuses reached an extortionate level.” But public service critics would suggest that her mother might have had a hand in that, what with the anticipated, stereotypical “gold-plated” pension.
“I don’t feel responsible”, says Julie mildly. “I think during the Celtic Tiger, everybody benefited to a certain extent, but I think the real beneficiaries were making millions. There were no public servants in that category. It certainly wasn’t the case in our lives. We had no designer clothes. That all went over our heads. We were delighted to be able to go out for a meal or to be able to have a nice holiday once a year. That’s why Sheila is as level-headed as she is.”
She has no apology either for the pay awards that considerably improved nurses’ lives. Without them, she and her two daughters would have been left “in poverty”, when her husband Christy died 10 years ago. Her three priorities were to give them a deep moral grounding, the best private education and health insurance. She still pays over €3,000 a year to the VHI.
As for the fat pension? Sheila pulls out one of her mother’s payslips and points to the net column in a fortnight’s pay. This shows that Julie is left with about half her gross earnings after deductions (none of them voluntary apart from a tiny pension top-up).
Sheila – a practical, cheerful, young woman who lights up when talking about teaching work – has learned that in terms of savings, the rainy day is probably here. She moved out of home and into a low-rent inner city apartment with an old school friend.
“I just thought, it could be 10 more tough years so I’m just going to have a good life, keep subbing, keep volunteering in the summer, but I’m not going to become totally disheartened and live under mammy’s roof and pinch every penny, because what if it doesn’t all work out in the end? I wouldn’t have had any fun in my early 20s.”
Julie nods approvingly. She believes that much of this divisive argument – whether about inter-generational or public versus private sector – is stirred up by the media and by those who want to divert attention from the “real issues”.
Margaret and Rae Byrne go along with that. “When it [solidarity] starts to break down between generations or between public and private sectors, it actually suits the people in power because we’re taking our eye off what they’re doing, which is kowtowing to vested interests and throwing in the odd grenade”, says Margaret.
“But small businesses are the real heroes, sucking up the charges and surviving on less.
“When the day of reckoning comes, does the Government really have to worry about the 300,000 in the public service or do they need to worry about the 1.2 million working who are getting such a hard time and with no one representing them?”
She also disputes the view that it was her generation that scooped the property gains.
“I feel a lot of people looked at their homes as just an asset that you could sell without paying capital gains. People in every age group did that. There are people sitting pretty in their 20s, 30s and 40s who took one view of their home – that we’ll flip it, and flip the next one and pocket the million or two we make each time. That was across the generations.”
On paper, Margaret and Barry Moore should be sitting pretty too. With their photography, they pioneered the shift from cheesy, misty-eyed family portraits towards breezy, barefoot, black-and-white images. They were undoubtedly big beneficiaries of the boom. “But we started with nothing – literally,” she says repeatedly.
Their priority was education for the children. It was also made clear there would be no life-long Bank of Mum and Dad. Four years ago, it never looked as if there would be a need for one. At 21, after just one afternoon handing out CVs, Rae had several interviews lined up by evening and very quickly, a job, which she left to pursue her master’s after winning a Swiss scholarship.
But that was then. “I’m currently on the dole and live in fairly modest accommodation in Fairview with quite low rent,” Rae says.
With a few contemporaries, she works on small, non-fee paying projects. “You kinda roll with the punches. It’s not easy. We are trying to keep ourselves busy, but I know a lot of people who have changed careers. A huge number have left the country. Some here are working in cafes and shops and the local Spar.
“There’s a lot of competition here for any architectural jobs and they don’t necessarily last very long. A friend of mine was taken on on a year’s contract and six weeks later was let go. Job security isn’t there any more.”
The world of guaranteed job security seems like another planet. “That sounds to me like, wow, I can’t believe it ever existed,” Rae adds, “but I don’t see any point in carrying that weight or anger or hard feelings. A lot of people have gone through a lot of hardship in the past. I’ve seen it from my parents. I remember when we lived in a one-bedroom basement apartment and the struggle that Margaret and Barry have gone through.
“This is another of those moments,” she says. “I don’t feel particularly hard done by. We don’t even know yet what’s to come for my generation. We’re just starting out. I don’t feel at a disadvantage at all.”
Margaret has no concerns for her.
“Things may be tough, but as well as exposing them to education, we’ve exposed them to thinking, to examine the way they think, so they’re not going to be caught in a trap and say ‘I can’t do X because of Y’. The only thing that’s ever going to limit them is going to be themselves. Rae is so talented. She may not have an amazing two years ahead of her or three, but she is going to have a brilliant career. They do have a future. There’s so many things they can do.”
Almost incidentally, Margaret mentions that the company where she and Barry placed their “self-directed pension” funds is not returning their calls. They only know that this company chose to pass their funds to a company they had never heard of, “so we’re not sitting pretty for a pension in any sense of the word. But is there any point in complaining or pointing the finger?”