Quickly but quietly, Ireland is disappearing its young people
Fintan O'Toole: There are good reasons to be browned off in Ireland if you’re young and well-educated
‘Electric Picnic is now a bucolic frolic for those on the verge of middle age — which makes it a microcosm of austerity Ireland.’ Above, the crowd at the main stage at Electric Picnic. Photograph: Dave Meehan
So Electric Picnic is now a bucolic frolic for those on the verge of middle age — which makes it a microcosm of austerity Ireland. A century on from theIrish revolution, the equivalent of the generation that made it is being squeezed out of existence in the State it created. If the young revolutionaries were around now, they wouldn’t be around here. WB Yeats turned out to be wrong – this is no country for young men, or for young women either.
Very quickly but rather quietly, Ireland is doing a remarkable thing. It is disappearing its young people. In April 2009, the State contained 1.423 million people aged between 15 and 35. In April 2014, there were 1.206 million in the same age group. That’s a reduction from one generation of more than the entire population of Limerick city and county. This is the age group of rebellion, of adventure, of trying it out and trying it on. It’s the generation that annoys its elders and outrages convention and challenges accepted wisdom. It is demography’s answer to the stultification of groupthink. It is not always right but without its capacity to drive everyone else up the wall, smugness settles over everything like a fine grey dust.
The biggest reason for this loss of nearly a quarter of a million young people in five years is emigration. People of my age remember the 1980s, the Donnelly visas and the flight of the Ryanair generation, and assume that what’s happening now couldn’t be as bad. They’re right – it’s not as bad, it’s much worse.
In the entire, miserable decade of the 1980s, net emigration was 206,000, a figure seen at the time as a shocking indictment of political and economic failure. In the last five years alone it is 151,000. And most of this emigration is of people between 15 and 44: in 2012 and 2013 alone, we lost 70,000 people in this age group. The percentage of 15- to 29-year-olds in the population has fallen from 23.1 per cent in 2009 to 18 per cent in 2014. And it’s not just that the young generation is physically shrinking. Many, even those who have stayed, have emigration in their heads as an active option. They are, mentally, half here.
Why are they going? Largely because they’re browned off. It’s been clear for quite some time now that most of those who are leaving are not, in a simple sense, economic refugees. Unemployment is certainly a factor: it is very bad for the very young and it’s not getting much better. While overall employment has risen significantly between the first quarter of 2012 and the first quarter of 2014, it has actually dropped sharply for the under-25s, from 154,000 to 142,000. The economic crisis has hit young people disproportionately hard and there’s no doubt that many of them leave simply to find work. But the majority of emigrants are actually in employment – every year since the crash somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 people who have jobs have given them up and left the country.
This doesn’t mean, however, that leaving is just a self-indulgent “lifestyle choice” — if it was it would not have increased fourfold since the bust. Having some sort of a job is one thing. Having a sense that you have a career and a future is something else. We know from the UCC Emigre research project last year that “an enormous proportion of emigrants [previously] employed in Ireland did not feel content with their professional careers before moving”.
And this is not because they’re pampered whingers. There are really good reasons to be browned off in Ireland if you’re young and well-educated and trying to get a job that gives you self-respect in the present and hope for the future. Low pay, insecurity, part-time hours, the absence of a career path — these are not uniquely Irish conditions but neither are they universal. The obvious truth for a lot of young Irish people is that they can do better elsewhere. And we’ve raised them to expect better — people of my age are the ones who told our kids to have a sense of their own worth and not to put up with being treated like dirt. We taught them well — and we’re paying the price through their absence.
That price is large. Economically, of course, there’s a vast loss of human wealth in the export of expensively educated young people and in some cases, like doctors, importing substitutes. Young emigrants are significantly more likely than the rest of the population to have a third-level degree. But there’s also a loss of texture, of buzz, of go. Look anywhere in Ireland that is not a specific redoubt of youth culture, and the place is heavy with middle-age. From the civil service to the media, from politics to the arts establishment, you find demographic landscapes that have been largely frozen for the last six years. The thinning ranks of the young have been unable to mount any sustained challenge to the self-serving orthodoxies of their elders. Which would be fine if the place they leave could afford the consequent culture of stasis and complacency.