Lost generation tries to find its way


The downturn is squeezing everyone, while the youngest are bearing the brunt of job losses and lowered expectations. But many are determined to carve out a new future, writes CARL O'BRIEN, Chief Reporter

IT’S ONLY A few years old, but it reads like a relic from another era. In 2006, college students in Ireland were asked in a survey about their career prospects. The results showed prospective graduates were giddy with optimism.

One in five expected to glide into senior jobs and haul in about €100,000 a year by the age of 30. Almost two-thirds expected to own their house; one-tenth of that group assumed they’d have a holiday home as well.

Those heady days of the noughties boom, swept along by a buy-now-pay-later culture, seem a world away now.

Thousands of young people who were told they never had it so good have been adjusting to the boredom and frustration that comes with unemployment. Others are lowering their expectations, working in low-paid jobs outside the areas for which they’re qualified.

A grim parade of statistics in recent months shows just how much young people are bearing the brunt of the downturn.

Youth unemployment is almost 30 per cent – double the overall rate. Negative equity is disproportionately trapping the young. The majority of the thousands leaving the country in recent years are in their 20s.

When broken down by gender, it’s clear this is not a country for young men. Latest figures show just under a third of males aged between 20 and 24 are jobless (32 per cent) compared to over a fifth of young women (22 per cent).

College graduates are just part of the story. Those lured out of formal education and into well-paid jobs at the height of the boom are now at the highest risk of long-term unemployment.

Studies repeatedly show what we have always suspected: prolonged spells out of work for those about to enter the labour market can leave permanent scars, including job instability and slow career progression.

KATIE O’MAHONY (23) has seen first-hand how confidence-sapping long-term unemployment can be.

“The first few months you think, ‘this is great craic, I’m on the dole!” she says. “Then you see people sinking into a kind of functional depression. You see people maybe getting involved in drugs or drink. It’s absolutely terrible for your self-esteem.”

After dropping out of college, she travelled, did some volunteer work and then tried to rejoin the workforce.

“The longer you’re out of work, the more confidence you lose. You feel incapable of writing a CV, not to mind going for a job interview.”

Like many young people, she is hoping to re-enter the education system to ride out the worse effects of the downturn. She plans to study social sciences in UCC in the autumn. If she doesn’t get into the course, she’ll try volunteering or working abroad – anything but rely on the dole.

Most experts agree that having so many young people out of work constitutes a social emergency. Yet, well-meaning initiatives on jobs and training, such as JobBridge and others, have failed to make any meaningful impact on youth unemployment.

James Doorley, assistant director at the National Youth Council of Ireland, says the various schemes launched in recent years are either too small in scale or just don’t provide the right kind of training opportunities.

“We can’t afford to just leave this generation to one side,” he says. “We need temporary, extraordinary measures to tackle this. The alternative is simple: we’ll have allowed a generation to either emigrate or stay on the dole.”

He says many well-qualified young people end up being churned through training courses that provide them with no new skills or fail to bring them closer to the jobs market.

Doorley says bigger, more ambitious and better-targeted measures are needed. He points to large pots of money – such as the EU’s €30 billion social fund – that could be tapped to fund large-scale employment schemes.

It’s a sentiment shared by Michael McLoughlin of Youth Work Ireland, which provides training and support for school-leavers and young job-seekers.

“There is also some European funding on the table, so now more than ever our Government needs to step up and develop a real and effective youth employment strategy,” he says.

THE PHRASE “lost generation” is often used to describe this generation whose ambitions have been thwarted. But it’s also a doom-laden phrase that suggests the only option is to leave the country or become a passive spectator at our declining fortunes.

Many beg to differ. There are lots of young people trying to make the most of challenging circumstances by retraining or applying their skills in new and imaginative ways they never envisaged.

Samuel Bishop (27), from Newtownmountkennedy, Co Wicklow, is one. He’s an architectural graduate who travelled the world only to return to a country in the teeth of a recession. Worse still, the property industry had collapsed and work was non-existent.

Drawing on his passion for community, the environment and social activism, he decided to try his hand at kick-starting a range of artistic and social projects.

The results are impressive. They include the Upstart art collective – whose alternative election posters grabbed the public’s attention last year – and Streetfeast, which aims to re-energise our communities and streets.

“While it’s hugely frustrating to see the way things are going in Ireland, I’m determined to try to make a difference,” he says. “Of course it’s tempting to leave, but I keep inspired and sane by working and surrounding myself with incredible and creative people while working on meaningful projects.”

Volunteer groups report a spike in the number of young people eager to get some experience or to feel valued as a team member by volunteering their time. Dr Yvonne McKenna of Volunteer Ireland says this generation is far from being lost. Instead, they are motivated to make the best of a very difficult situation.

“There’s a confidence about them and they’re coming forward on the basis that ‘I have skills and I want to put them to work’.”

QUITE A few commentators have wondered why young people aren’t marching on the streets. Surely they should be raging against the opportunities snatched from their grasp, or railing against the immorality of paying for a mess created by older generations?

There is frustration out there, for sure. During focus groups he held as part of research for the Youth Council of Ireland, Hugh O’Connor of OCS Consulting found many younger people bristling with anger.

One comment was: “We were brought up to respect our elders . . . but when your elders are screwing the country for every penny, it’s difficult to respect them.” And another: “Bankers, politicians, senior civil servants – they have all made a mess of it.”

But there was also a sense that it was up to a new generation to help turn things around.

A common theme to emerge was young people who felt they had a greater sense of a social conscience and responsibility than older generations – and a determination to create a new society that is fairer and more sustainable.

Ruairí McKiernan (32), founder of SpunOut.ieand recently appointed one of the youngest members of the President’s Council of State, is similarly optimistic.

“We’re not victims,” he says. “I like to think that we’re turning away from negativity and fear, joining friends and strangers of all ages and backgrounds to create a new world, where happiness, meaning and purpose are the real measurement of success.”

He says there is plenty of evidence to show that a new generation is stirring that is visionary, caring, confident and courageous.

These are bold and ambitious sentiments. They may also be naive, given the odds stacked against this new generation. Time will tell.

Just as the hardship of post-war rationing or economic crises taught previous generations about the need to make sacrifices and hard choices, today’s young generation are learning tough lessons about trust, certainty and self-reliance that will last a lifetime.