No country for young men

 

According to two reports this week, young Irish people - and men in particular - are bearing the brunt of the recession, with potentially devastating effects on their lives and the economy. Members of the so-called 'lost generation' discuss their plight. CARL O'BRIEN,Chief Reporter

THEY’RE BRIGHT and they’re eager – but they’re also unwanted. As the country struggles to cope in a credit-crunched world, it’s increasingly clear that young people are bearing the brunt of the country’s job losses. A grim pageant of statistics published this week showed just how stark the reality is. Unemployment is now running up to three times higher among young people compared to the rest of the population. Joblessness among the under-25s is reaching towards 27 per cent, compared with 9 per cent for the rest of the population. For young men the situation is even worse, with one in three in their early 20s out of a job.

It was never meant to be like this. For a generation who grew up in the carefree days of the Noughties boom, swept along by the buy-now-pay-later culture, it’s a seismic reality shift. During a decade of near full employment, parents, teachers and politicians believed that this was a generation that had never had it so good.

Many young people skipped nimbly from one job to another in an environment where money, opportunity and choices seemed to lie around every corner. Rainy days were such a distant memory that they hardly seemed worth saving for.

Times have changed, and now uncertainty prevails. Thousands of young people are adjusting to the boredom and poverty that comes with unemployment and handouts. Others are lowering their expectations, working in low-paid jobs outside the areas in which they are qualified.

Yet 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 most at risk of long-term unemployment. Studies have shown that prolonged spells out of work for those about to enter the labour market can leave permanent scars, including job instability and slow career progression.

Leading labour economist Prof David Blanchflower has made headlines in the UK in recent times, warning of a “lost generation” of young people unless the British government moved swiftly to tackle the crisis. Visiting Dublin this week, his message was just as stark. He pointed to research in Britain which found that people who were unemployed in their mid-20s were more likely to be unemployed, have lower health and generate a lower wage later in life.

What makes matters worse, according to Blanchflower, is that the recession is coming at the very time when large numbers of young people should be flooding the workforce. “They’re going to be a huge lost generation. I would like for them to be paying for my retirement and your retirement, but the problem as well is that the cohorts behind them will have to pay for them forever.”

All social groups are being hit, he says, from working-class school-leavers to middle-class graduates. “It’s a call to arms for their parents and their grandparents. We need to get all parties together and say: ‘What are we going to do about this?’ ”

Much of the language currently being used is unmistakably warlike. The phrase “lost generation” evokes a post-war era, while some economists talk of “casualties” of the recession. Maybe this is because the firgures are so stark as to require emergency action. A Fás report this week, for example, found that young workers, particularly men aged under 24, have been the worst-affected by the downturn, with one-third currently out of work. The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) also weighed in with the view that the minimum school-leaving age should be raised from 16 to 18, with more training options to help limit youth unemployment. The organisation added that there was a “serious risk that joblessness in the short run will translate into a permanently higher level of unemployment”, due mainly to weak labour-activation measures.

There is no time to waste, says Brian Mooney, a former president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, who has met with senior Government ministers in recent months to help plot a way out of the crisis.

“Unless you find work, your skills deteriorate within a few months,” he says. “So if a young person has left college or the construction industry and is out of work for a year, you’re going backwards. Your skills, morale and self-esteem all take a hit.”

Mooney bristles with frustration at what he sees as the Government’s inertia over dismantling old labour support systems to build new ones. Fás, he says, is not only a toxic brand but is also outmoded.

“There are too many job support agencies scattered throughout the system, some staffed by skilled people, others not so skilled,” he says. “We need to replace existing Fás offices, which are still geared too much towards construction, by bringing a wide range of skills, guidance and support for people ranging from managers to those with no skills.”

For all the doom-mongering, though, there are many who say that young people are more resilient than before, and that they are doing their bit while the economy is on its knees.

Yvonne McKenna, chief executive of Volunteer Centres Ireland (VCI), claims to see this on a daily basis. She says that young people, eager to get some kind of experience by volunteering, are applying for unpaid work in droves. She says the generation is far from being “lost”; instead, young people 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’,” she says.

Already this year, the number of young people applying to the VCI’s 20 volunteer centres around the country has swelled by almost 120 per cent.

AMID THE GLOOM, there have been some tentative signs of green shoots in recent weeks, with the unemployment figures dropping for the first time since the downturn began. Some economists have tentatively suggested that we may be at the end of the beginning.

Even if they’re right, the impact of this 21st-century recession will last for many years.

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 that will last a lifetime.

‘You try not to get down’

AARON, 22

Today is his first time signing on the live register. Work dried up over the past year. A qualified flight instructor, he moved home to his parents’ house in Dalkey. He is hoping the economy will pick up in the next year or so, and that he can resume work in his field.

“I never had it in mind that I’d be signing on. It’s the last option. I’ve been out of work for four months. I’ve been putting it off until now. I always thought there’d be the option to get something part-time. I didn’t think it would come to this.

“You don’t want to sound like a snob, but there are more people from higher-class areas signing on than before. There might have been a negative side to it before, but now we don’t have a choice.

“I was a flight instructor, moved to the US in 2007 to do my commercial licence, worked in Dublin and Cork as well. It’s all died down. It’s dead. You need €60,000 to do flight training, but the banks arent giving the money.

“It’ll have to pick up. I’m told it’s not as bad as the 1980s. It’s better to get through this while you’re young, rather than being more established, running a business and losing a lot of money. It could be worse. You try not to get down. I just keep trying to send off as many CVs as possible.”

JIM, 28

A painter and decorator, he says he will emigrate next year if his job prospects don’t improve. He has been signing on for a year or so, using his savings to pay off the mortgage for his house in Sallynoggin. His funds are almost exhausted.

“I was self-employed as a painting and decorating contractor. There was great work. I served my time, but it’s all gone downhill big-time. There was excellent money out there. You had the foreign people coming in with cheap labour later, so it was a bit harder.

“You can see that young people are taking the most of the burden. The Government is thinking of slashing welfare payments in the budget, which isn’t fair. The cost of living? It’s €204, you don’t get far with that. I’m single, but I have kids. They demand this and that, so that makes it hard.

“Job prospects are bleak. You hear about jobs, like 4,000 in Tallaght they say, but I don’t think so. It’ll be worse next year, even more bleak.”

KARL, 22

He is finishing a sound engineering course and earning €90 a week for two days’ work as a short-order cook. He is living with family friends near Stillorgan and is at the social welfare office today to see if he’s entitled to any benefits.

“It’s very bad for young people. Employers will always go for people who have experience. Why hire someone who has never had a job, when they can get someone who has worked? I’m training as a sound engineer, but I’m told there are way too many out there.

“I suppose we always thought we’d have jobs. We were told we could do what we wanted, go to university, earn good money. It was so easy compared to 20 or 30 years ago, but . . . To get a job, I might have to leave the country. If it comes to it, I’ll have to. Definitely.

“I’m not blaming anyone for this. People overspent, they went crazy during the boom, took out too many loans, and banks gave out too much money. It’s not the Government’s fault.”

STEVEN, 21

He is waiting to find out if he is eligible for unemployment benefit. He studied sports and leisure management at a college in the UK, but has returned home in recent months and has been looking for work ever since.

“It’s not as bad as people make it out to be, I think. Lots of people are using it as an excuse not to get work, although it is very difficult. I reckon there are prospects. With all the Fás courses, people will get the experience they need to get jobs; I think things will improve.

“I’m back to look for a job – but finding it hard. I was studying sport and leisure management. I’d like to do that here, but I’ll have to wait until September to get back into another course. That sector has been increasing, I think. Slowly. People can’t afford to go out, so they’re going to the gym. In the meantime, it’s a bit of a struggle. I’m depending on my mother.”

JOHN, 26

As a sales rep, he made good money, bought a car and had an apartment. He has since let the flat go and has retrained as a “bike technician”. His black folder is full of CVs, as well as bank statements and utility bills. He has entered the US Green Card lottery and is thinking of emigrating.

“I’ve been signing on since June. I took a job in Belfast for a month in Chain Reaction, a big bike place. Things aren’t so bad up there. I was working for £6.76 an hour, less than the minimum wage here. I couldn’t afford it; it was costing me, with the accommodation.

“I had been working in sales for about four years. The money was good; it was commission-based. If you put the work in, you got a good return. Like a lot of people, I got the car and the apartment, but all those repayments came home to bite me.

“I’m back with the family now . . . I’ll give things a few more months here. I’ve registered for the Green Card lottery. I’d prefer to stay here. But you see what’s happening with the Government; they’re using what little funds they have. I can’t see it changing.”

KELLY, 24

She started work as a temp after leaving school. Work dried up a year ago and she is now studying interior design. She hopes the economy will have picked up when she qualifies in four years’ time.

“Our generation never experienced anything but the Celtic Tiger. We heard about the 1980s, but it was all just whispers and ghost stories. Now it’s come back and, yeah, it’s a bit of a shock.

“Are we a lost generation? I don’t know. It’s time we took advantage of the situation we’re in, you have to look at it from a different perspective. Now’s the time to upgrade on education which will help you in the future.

“Before, it was so different. You’d almost be choosing jobs or which position to take. Now, you don’t even get called for an interview. Living on the back to education allowance [€204] is difficult. I’m renting. Socialising is non-existent.”

GED, 23

Originally from Co Louth, he is staying in Dublin with relatives and trying to find work. None of the 28 students in his film and TV college course has found full-time work. Many are considering emigrating.

“I’m not angry as such. I’m not sure how constructive a lot of the anger is. For years we had a Central Bank which didn’t seem to be doing anything; the banks threw money at people. This talk of a lost generation isn’t too far-fetched. I guess I knew the industry I was going into was always going to be tough, or work would be sporadic. I’m talking to relatives in the UK who work for ITV; that’s an option. They don’t seem to be as badly hit there. Then again, nowhere is as badly hit as us.”

  • Interviews took place outside the Dún Laoghaire social welfare office this week