'What's frightening is the speed . . . like a tap being switched off'
HARD TIMES:Architects, solicitors, IT specialists are part of a new wave of young professionals signing on at social welfare offices
IT’S EASY to miss the anonymous, grey-bricked building on Bishop Street, set into the basement of a modern office block.
The only giveaway that this is one of the main social welfare offices for Dublin’s southside is the steady stream of people heading inside, mostly clutching folders full of CVs and job application forms.
A few months ago it was construction workers and poorly paid service industry workers queuing for a living.
Now a new wave of young professionals are arriving who have never known the world of unemployment.
“We’re seeing lots of architects, solicitors, people who never really signed on during the last recession,” says one welfare official, who declines to give his name.
“It’s taken everyone by surprise, not least the staff in here.”
Unemployment has traditionally been low in the catchment area of the welfare office, which includes prosperous suburbs like Rathgar, Ranelagh and Templeogue. But the numbers are increasing fast.
Anne ( 34), an architect from south Dublin, considers herself one of the lucky ones.
She has been forced to work a three-day week and estimates that hundreds of young architects have been laid off in recent months.
“Having a few days’ work is so much more preferable to having nothing,” she says.
“When I meet other architects and friends in the industry, I don’t ask if they’re working any more. It’s pretty depressing. And it’s difficult for a lot of people to talk about.”
She is using her savings to keep up payments on her €1,200 a month mortgage, although she says that can’t go on forever.
“What’s frightening is the speed of all this. It was like a tap being switched off. One day the builders were asking what was happening, then everything was put on hold. I thought there’d be enough work to see me through for a year at least.”
The shock of unemployment is only beginning to hit home for Stavros (30), another architect from Poland.
He qualified with a master’s degree about five years ago. But no one warned him that the construction industry was built on sand.
“I was on about €40-50,000. Now, Im beginning to get worried. I’ve been looking everywhere for the past month. No one is hiring people, so there are no jobs to apply for.”
Darragh, an IT specialist, and Richard, who worked in finance, are two good-humoured young professionals from Perrystown and Templeogue. They’re both back living with their parents and learning how to eke out a living from €200 a week.
“When I finished my college exams, I put my CV on the web and was getting calls straight away. I hadn’t even got my results. I finished the exams on a Thursday and was working on the Sunday,” says Darragh.
“There was so much work you could use job offers from other firms as bargaining chips. I never thought things would turn out like this. I used to earn the guts of a grand a week; so you now have to live on a day’s wage. It’s tough enough to pay anything out of €200.”
He’s just bought a DVD from HMV on sale for €3.99. That’s as extravagant as his purchases come these days, he jokes.
There’s a more serious and urgent air about older professionals, saddled with high mortgages and childcare costs.
One of them is Mark (48) from Rathgar. He was working as an archaeologist until the summer when everyone in the firm was laid off after a dispute with a local authority. He hasn’t worked since.
“I try to look busy on the computer, tell the kids that I’m my own boss,” he says. “Most of the time I try to fill by writing articles. I’m very interested in wildlife, but the only publications that are interested are the ones who don’t pay.”
The reality of life on the breadline means daily sacrifices. His car broke down just half an hour ago, for example, and he doesn’t know how he’s going to afford to fix it.
John (34), who bought a house in Crumlin recently with his wife, has been forced to take out a loan to make ends meet.
“We’re borrowing to keep everything ticking over . . . we’re having work done to the house and everything’s going into that, paying bills and keeping up the mortgage payments. Either we do that, or we end up with no windows in the house.”
As if adjusting to a fixed income wasn’t bad enough, there’s the shame of being spotted in the dole queue. Or at least, that’s the way some people see it.
Maria (56) runs a hairdressing salon in Terenure, and admits to being mortified to queue up for welfare payments.
“There’s a real sense of shame, for me anyway,” she says. “I saw a neighbour in the queue there, but the same thing is probably going through their head. But you just have to do it; you have to knuckle down. It’s the way things are.”