Workplace has become terrain of insecurity and exhaustion

Opinion: Underemployed but overworked has become default setting

‘People aren’t so much touched by emigration as manhandled by it.’ Above, Irish emigrants leaving for Liverpool during the Famine, in 1851. Original publication: Illustrated London News (Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

‘People aren’t so much touched by emigration as manhandled by it.’ Above, Irish emigrants leaving for Liverpool during the Famine, in 1851. Original publication: Illustrated London News (Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


Any time someone has the audacity to suggest that modern-day emigrants aren’t actually waving handkerchiefs from the ship deck, as they head off to an anonymous life labouring (with packed sandwiches tied in twine and a scapular scratching their back while their mother keens on the pier), is said to be denigrating the real hardship and emotional jolt that occurs when someone leaves.

Of course things are hard. Of course it’s horrible to watch people go. Of course it would be amazing if we could all stay here and build something great (not more apartment blocks) for ourselves and those after us. Of course unemployment grinds people down and tries to destroys the self. People aren’t so much touched by emigration as manhandled by it.

We lose best friends, brothers, sisters, cousins, parents, children, colleagues, teammates, neighbours. Now, stories about employment rising, businesses doing well and the property market going bananas again are almost gruesome. It’s shuddering. One Sunday newspaper laughably included the term “Celtic Phoenix” in a headline last week, a term originally concocted by the fictional Ross O’Carroll-Kelly’s father Charles in Breaking Dad. Goldfish memories.

Fleeting good times

On the flip side, the more uncomfortable stories – evictions, children going to school hungry, people still stuck in houses they never wanted to live in and will never be able to leave, heroin-related crime in towns and cities, homelessness, and a home rental sector that is basically broken – struggle to raise a cacophony over those willing the good times back. The velvet rope wants to be unhooked. We want our names back on the guest list. We want in.

Which is why the most recent Central Statistics Office emigration figures are so riveting. As comedian Stewart Lee says, you can prove anything with facts, can’t you? Emigration is down overall. Good news story. The number of Irish people emigrating during the period April 2013 to April 2014 was 40,700, down 10,200 on the previous 12 months. The number of non-Irish people living in Ireland who left over that period was 41,200, down 7,100 on the previous period. Overall, 81,900 people left Ireland in a year. Some 112 Irish people are leaving a day, that’s over 780 a week, over 3,450 a month. The numbers are down by percentages, but the bleed still seems unstoppable. What we need is surgery, and what we’re getting are plasters.

These figures can be spun in several different directions, but the most striking one is that fewer than one in five of those leaving Ireland (of all nationalities) were unemployed. The vast majority were either working or studying. Incredible, right? Scratch the surface of that, and the brain drain becomes stark, with 47 per cent of emigrants having a degree or a third-level qualification.

But here’s the really interesting part. Graduate emigration is up. It’s up a lot: 29,000 people who emigrated last year were students prior to leaving. The previous year, that was 20,200. That’s a whopping increase in just-graduated students leaving within a tiny 12-month period. Obviously, new graduates are emigration-ready. It’s easier to leave when most of your possessions fit into a rucksack and you probably don’t have the bank screaming at you for mortgage payments and are less likely to have kids screaming at you for everything else. But it’s deeply troubling.

Despite increased job numbers, there is a feeling that we’re creating quantity, not quality. This is a work-experience nation, where you can reach a certain career level, before you leave to get the real gig elsewhere. I know very few of my peers who are in secure employment.

That’s not necessarily a terrible thing, because as we know from the inflated salaries of those in the public service of past times and the lack of accountability that typified many of our sectors, a job for life often circumvented the requirements of accountability, suitability, and performance-related pay and promotion.

The idea that you could hang around an office long enough before being automatically upgraded in terms of positions of power and earning is the preserve of older people.

Many of us in our 20s and 30s now, like myself, exist in a freelance environment or in temporary employment or on a contract basis. Insecurity is built into our employment market. Being kept on one’s toes can often spur one to be better, work harder and take on several gigs at once, learning more and being more versatile – having “transferable skills”. But it is also a relentlessly stressful way to exist and earn.

Badge for burnout

Paradoxically, despite such insecurity, a competitive relationship with work has developed. People talk up the number of hours they put in. Even though there’s nothing cool about being overworked and exhausted, reaching burnout is something of a badge of honour. Being up to your eyes and flat-out and beyond busy are seen as the characteristics of success, when they’re really the hallmarks of schmucks. And so underemployed yet overworked has become the default stance. It’s a generation gap that has become a gulf.


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