A lost generation? Not us
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.