A lost generation? Not us
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.