A lost generation? Not us

Sat, Sep 22, 2012, 01:00

GENERATION NEXT:A major ‘Irish Times’ series starting today explores the plight of Generation Next, Irish people aged between 18 and 25 who were raised in the boom but grew up in the bust. They have high education levels but low job prospects. Many will emigrate, but not all are able to. Yet, as this group tell CARL O’BRIEN, they are unresentful about the past, resilient about the present and optimistic about their future

WHO’D BE YOUNG? People under 25 are twice as likely as the rest of the population to be jobless. They face a lifetime of heavier taxes and crippling debt that was not of their making. Many find themselves locked out of work because of protectionist labour policies that shelter an older generation.

And then there are the long-term scars. People who are unemployed for spells in their formative years feel its harmful effects on many areas of their lives – happiness, job satisfaction, wages and health – for many years.

Politicians often say Ireland’s greatest asset is having the youngest population in Europe. Yet it seems as if the next generation is being set up to fail. The basic social contract – the promise that hard work will pay off, that responsibility will be rewarded and that everyone plays by the same rules – is fraying at the edges.

It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Irish society, after all, has always been hard edged and unsentimental about young people. This is the country that has bred generations, like cattle, for export; it is the old sow that eats her farrow. But the way an older generation seems to have pulled the rescue ladder up after itself will create an embittered, alienated and resentful new generation.

Or so you might think.

The Irish Times has assembled a group of young people to discuss what lies ahead for them. They are a mix of early school-leavers, college students and graduates, and they spoke to us in groups as well as individually.

We have discussed how they feel about life in Ireland today. What aspirations do they have? What kind of country do they want to live in? What kind of future lies ahead for them?

What’s most striking among the majority is a sense of hope, realism and resilience. They recoil from being labelled a doomed or lost generation – phrases that were, inevitably, coined by an older generation. There is anger and frustration at where they find themselves, of course. But there is also a sense of futility at raging about what happened in the past. Most speak of carving their own future out of the rubble of the present.

“Ultimately, you have to get on with it and just accept that it’s in the past,” says Seán Keane, a 24-year-old graduate who has been looking for work for a year. “You can’t rely on someone to arrive on a white horse to ride to the rescue.”

“I’ve decided there’s only so much anger I can feel,” says Stacey Shine, who is also 24. She is an arts graduate and emerging artist. “If someone has the opportunity to take advantage in the same way again, they probably will . . . We need to look at what we can do to ensure this doesn’t happen again, rather than focusing on the past.”

There is also little sense of entitlement, even though they grew up in a more prosperous era when it might have been expected.

This is a generation that appreciates more than most how interconnected and globalised the world is. Why carp about the Government when much of the decision-making is out of its hands?

“What can the Government do, really?” says Eugene Woodland, a 19-year-old early school-leaver from Limerick who is seeking work. “There’s a lot we can do ourselves . . . If you do a course and get a qualification, why not be productive and set something up? We shouldn’t have to wait for others to come along.”

Despite being hampered by debt and bleak economic prospects, most feel optimistic that they will have fulfilling lives. Having a successful career, owning a home and raising a family in Ireland still feel like attainable goals. “I have two years’ work experience,” says Laura Kinsella, a 24-year-old chemistry graduate in search of work. “I just need someone to see the good in me and to give me a chance again.”

“In five years I hope to be in full-time employment and to have prospects and opportunities,” says Seán Phelan, who is 20 and studying bar management at Dublin Institute of Technology. “Maybe at some stage in the future I will go back to education and go farther in my field, rise up and become better at what I do.”

“I’d hope to have enough money to be comfortable, to live on,” says Aoife Price, a 23-year-old student of politics and international relations.

“I’d like to have a car and be able to fuel it, but I think maybe [we] won’t be buying houses in the future: we’ll be renting instead.”

Having said that, there is no getting away from how tough job-seeking can be. Many talk about how easy it is to get down or feel depressed.

There’s also a gnawing frustration at what many see as companies seeking to exploit young people through unpaid work experience. “You need to motivate yourself to apply for jobs and keep applying, even though most places won’t get back to you,” says Keane. “That’s a bit soul-destroying. So where do you go from there? The days and weeks can melt away.”

“I’m pretty happy to do some work experience,” says Shine. “But it’s having a cut-off point for that. [You shouldn’t have to] go into your 30s and beyond, still struggling, and be expected to work for free.”

They’re also flexible. In a fast-moving world, many are pragmatic about what they need to do to enhance their job prospects. “When you’re unemployed you realise you can’t pigeonhole yourself,” says Kinsella. “You have to be open to new ideas.”

ALL THIS OPTIMISM, even if it is tempered by a recognition of current challenges, feels a bit odd. Countercultural opposition, after all, is often seen as an essential part of youth.

Last year about a quarter of Egyptian workers under 25 were unemployed, a statistic often quoted as a reason for revolution there. In Ireland the figure last year was higher still: a third of young people were out of work.

You might expect the first whiff of revolution in colleges and universities. But Stephen Kinsella, a lecturer in economics at the University of Limerick, hasn’t seen much of it: the students are too busy studying, he says.

“They’re very switched on and motivated. They want to pass their exams and are extremely dedicated to doing that,” he says. “There aren’t really outlets to be radical in. There’s no secular intelligentsia they can look up to, no set of institutions representing an alternative viewpoint that has a critical mass of supporters.”

So how bad will things get? Is the doom- mongering about the debt facing the next generation justified? Or will the next generation simply face a dramatic but short-term readjustment? “For the next generation, it’s certain that taxes will increase and social- security expenditure will decrease over the next five or 10 years at the very least. This is not a two-year period of austerity followed by a return to the Celtic Tiger,” says Kinsella.

Colm Harmon, who was until recently a professor of economics at University College Dublin and is now based at the University of Sydney, agrees. The era of shakier jobs and shorter-term contracts, along with the erosion of generous pensions and other benefits, looks set to be the “new normal”.

“We are not going to see growth rates that will create the sort of opportunities for prosperity and wealth that the mid-2000s did. There is an opportunity to recalibrate our expectations. This will be a good thing, in many respects, but it will come at a price.”

He is most worried about what policymakers call the Neets: not in employment, education or training. He fears they could be left behind and are the most vulnerable to becoming unemployed in the long term.

“The rate of persistence in school drop-out rates over the past 10 years, concentrated in specific geographic areas mainly in the cities, was striking. If the rewards of the boom were not enough to shift young people’s perception of the future and the gains to be captured, I worry a lot about the signal that the current period is sending.”

AND YET, ALMOSTfive years into the economic crisis, most experts grumble that there is little sign of a co-ordinated, coherent or focused policy approach to the pressing needs of young jobseekers in Ireland. Too many training courses, they say, are of poor quality or don’t reflect the needs of labour forces. Debt- reduction commitments to reining in social spending don’t offer an opportunity to invest in ambitious job-creation or apprenticeship programmes. They appear to make the problem worse.

Insufficient job training and apprenticeship programmes, they argue, contribute to the large pool of long-term unemployed young people in Ireland.

Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton says she is well aware of the scale of the challenge. One big criticism is that the way we deal with jobseekers is too impersonal. Instead of being assessed on their individual skills and talents, people are often shuttled into a one-size-fits-all system that offers poor training and doesn’t link in with other State-funded agencies. Burton says she is changing this.

“The Pathways to Work programme that is under way is about creating a more integrated service with greater emphasis on one-to-one case management, so we can tailor options and opportunities to suit people’s needs and qualifications,” she says.

Burton points to schemes such as JobBridge, which allows a person to work while receiving the dole and a €50 allowance.

Although it is derided by some as a way for employers to access cheap labour, the Minister says the scheme gives more than 9,000 people valuable work experience. In fact, close to 40 per cent of those went on to get some form of work from their employers once the internships ended, after six or nine months.

She is also a keen supporter of a “youth guarantee”, an idea tried out in some European countries, in which young people who are out of work are guaranteed access to a job, training or further education that meets their needs for several months.

With the backing of the European Commission, there are signs that such an initiative could be kick-started over the coming months.

But careers experts such as Brian Mooney argue that we need to go farther. He says individualised assessment and guidance to determine what skills a person has, combined with cutting-edge training that can plug emerging gaps in the labour market, are vital. “The critical and most important intervention is the first one: a quality guidance service. We need to determine a person’s skills, not just a degree or qualification.”

He warns that reforms such as the creation of Solas, the successor to Fás, as well as Burton’s plans, must be combined with real training and investment. Simply changing the names of State agencies and relocating civil servants will change nothing, he says.

In the meantime, Mooney says, young people can do a lot to help themselves.

While formal qualifications are important, they may also have other skills and talents that aren’t certified. Get them recognised, and then find training that will fill the gap between those skills and the needs of the market.

“The golden rule is to get out of bed today and do something to improve your chances of getting a job,” he says. “Do voluntary work, seek an internship under schemes such as JobBridge or consider opportunities abroad. The world reinvents itself every day.”

EXPECTATIONS HAVEchanged since the rampant materialism of the boom years.

In a survey of college graduates in 2008, many university students oozed confidence about their futures. Most expected good jobs, foreign holidays, buy-to-let investment properties and decent salaries. A significant number expected to glide into jobs that, after a few years, would pay up to €100,000. And all that would happen before they hit 30.

The equivalent survey last year, the Graduate Barometer 2011, makes the previous poll read like a relic of another era. Gone were the guaranteed recruitment, nimble job-hopping and high starter salaries. The new graduates expected long job searches and more modest wages.

It found 80 per cent were worried about their future and 30 per cent would leave Ireland after graduating.

There are also signs that jobs with meaning are becoming more important. A recent survey of more than 400 students by the Undergraduate Awards, an Ireland-based academic awards programme that identifies the brightest students, found just a tiny minority saw salary as the most important issue. Instead, ethical values and the potential to make a social impact were far more important motivating factors behind their career paths.

This topic also featured in the Irish Times discussion. “I’d love to teach young people and practise here,” says Shine. “Whether I’ll get less money doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to me whether I’ll get a nice house or a large car.”

“People put themselves under insane pressure with five- or 10-year plans,” says Kinsella. “I really think, in this day and age, it’s quite unrealistic. You only line yourself up for disappointment and failure.”

Some college lecturers and youth workers also report increased interest in social entrepreneurship and a hunger for new ways of thinking. It’s as if some are turning their backs on politics and the old systems and looking for new ways to change the world they live in. It’s something President Michael D Higgins has sought to encourage as part of a series of forums on being young and Irish.

He says he has been struck by the absence of cynicism among young people taking part and urged them to take charge of change. “Young people are facing conditions of change which are going to impact on them, and are impacting on them. They are carrying the greater burden of unemployment, broken expectations,” he told this newspaper recently. “We need now, more than ever, a vibrant, imaginative and creative population to rebuild our land, to build a real Republic.”

That message has chimed with many. The forums on these issues that the President has helped to plan have been oversubscribed, taking organisers aback. If all this sounds a bit too Pollyannaish and hopelessly naive, then maybe it is.

“Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive,” William Wordsworth wrote, about two centuries ago. “But to be young was very heaven.” His words, often quoted as a celebration of youth, were written about the French Revolution and intended as an ironic comment on the naivety of youth.

Maybe this is a new generation that, when faced with the realities of work, raising a family and making ends meet, will continue as others did before. Or maybe they will seek to create a new society.

But for now they are confident, resilient, impatient for change and waiting for their voices to be heard.

‘Young people get a raw deal’ Generation Next on . . .


“It can be tough . . . You need to motivate yourself to apply for jobs and keep applying, even though most places won’t get back to you. That’s soul-destroying. So where do you go from there? . . . The days and weeks can melt away.” Seán Keane

“There’s no point comparing yourself to previous generations. Not a lot of good comes out of it. You have to look at your specific situation. It kind of has to get better. And we’re all willing to work.”Stacey Shine

“It’s challenging, but we’re all in the same pond. All you can do is just try your best . . . do things more productively. There’s no point getting down; then it’s not a recession, it’s a depression.”Eugene Woodland


“I’d hope to have enough money to be comfortable, to live on. I’d like to have a car and be able to fuel it, but I think maybe [we] won’t be buying houses in the future, we’ll be renting.” Aoife Price

“In five years I hope to be in full-time employment, have prospects and opportunities. Maybe at some stage in the future go back to education and go further in my field.” Seán Phelan

“Sport is looking up in the US and Australia . . . I hope to get a sports-management degree here . . . If I have to emigrate, I will.”Stu Clancy

“I’d love to have a job here, working with young people or in a teaching role, and to be able to do my art. It doesn’t matter whether I’ll get a nice house or a large car. I’ll stay here anyway.”Stacey Shine

“I’ve two years’ work experience . . . I just need someone to see the good in me and give me a chance again.”Laura Kinsella


“The [fat cats] don’t feel an ounce of remorse. They have good thick necks on them. They have their golden handshakes. I’d love to see some of them take some responsibility.” Seán Keane

“I can’t feel too much anger towards individuals. If someone has the opportunity to take advantage in the same way again, they probably will . . . We need to look at what we can do to ensure it doesn’t happen again.” Stacey Shine


“There’s a lot we can do ourselves. If you do a course and get a qualification, why not be productive and set something up?” Eugene Woodland

“I will get a job. I’m entirely confident. It’s just about hitting the right place at the right time. It’s just a matter of keeping going and keeping motivated.” Seán Keane

“When you’re unemployed, you realise you can’t pigeonhole yourself. You have to be flexible, to be open to new ideas.”Laura Kinsella


“I had a bad experience of it. I ended up getting nothing out of it, aside from the experience, which was great, to be fair. But as a result I’m skewed against the notion of working for free. A lot of companies are taking advantage of it.”Seán Keane


“I think young people get a raw deal . . . they’re often tarred with the same brush: everyone’s a vandal, a troublemaker or nothing but trouble. But there’s lots of work done by young people in communities, out helping other people.” Jamie Leahy

“The media highlights trouble more than the good things they do. You never see articles on the positive things involving young people, such as [the mental health campaigns] Think Big and Headstrong.” Stu Clancy

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