Generation Next: The Debate
Have young people been left to carry the can for the mistakes of their elders? DAN HAYDENand BLAIR HORANexchange views
IRC Government of Ireland PhDScholar at the UCD Centre for Regulation and Governance.
Retired in March after 15 years as general secretary of the Civil, Public and Services Union.
Dan Hayden:In his speech at the Democratic National Convention in the US last month former president Bill Clinton said that “we’re all in this together” was a better philosophy than “you’re on your own”. Most would agree with the sentiment, but when this country’s mettle has been tested in the crisis of recent years, one group has been very clearly left out on its own.Unions have quietly acquiesced to new entrants to public jobs having greatly reduced pay and entitlements than those who entered only a few years ago. Unemployment continues to rise, especially for those from the construction sector, who find their hard-earned skills and training useless. In response, many emigrate.
Worse, for those who can work, a mountain of public debt left by the last generation will surely mean worsening public services and higher taxes. Meanwhile, well-organised interest groups seem to escape all economic accountability.
Isn’t there more to solidarity than “holding what you have” at all expense?
Blair Horan:I share the philosophy expressed by former president Clinton and accept that new entrants to the public service will suffer disproportionately, but don’t agree that unions are to blame.
The Government was prepared to protect pay for serving staff only under Croke Park, and then unilaterally introduced lower scales. It followed a long-standing practice by employers in many countries of changing conditions for new entrants. I am sure that in future unions will fight to close the pay gap, but also expect that it will not be easy.
I feel part of the lucky generation that entered the labour market in the 1970s, and I am concerned about the impact of this crisis on young people. Three times in my lifetime young people have been condemned to mass unemployment and emigration. Disastrous economic policies and pure greed by sections of the elite destroyed this economy. As a society we need to agree on a long-term model of sustainable economic development.
Hayden:We need a good long-term model. But this is crunch time for our society and our economy. We need to get this right today.
Unions aren’t to blame but are they representing these workers? If there was a union just for workers under 35, what would it campaign for? I suspect that it would have very different policies to the status quo.
A young workers’ union would demand equal work for equal pay. It would demand that older colleagues who underperform would have to shape up or get out, leaving them some space for promotion. [It would demand] an end to the hiring freeze that bars a whole generation from public service, and more rights for the growing numbers of part-time workers.
Don’t unions, as social partners, have responsibilities as well as rights?
Horan:The pragmatic response to the crisis here compared to other countries shows that unions are aware of their responsibilities.
Fortunately EU legislation gives strong protections to part-time, temporary and agency workers, along with a ban on age discrimination. I expect that unions will use all of these means as required to represent new entrants, and I don’t anticipate conflict between younger and older workers. Performance issues can arise in all age groups, and are primarily a matter for management.
Hayden:Even if there were more solidarity between older and younger workers, broader government policies have been divisive, picking and choosing groups to protect and groups to attack. More and more we can talk about the “pre-crisis” and “post-crisis” generation, divided by different social entitlements, permanent jobs and income.
Prof Guy Standing recently coined a term for such an emerging group: “The Precariat”, a generation whose lives are marked by insecurity.
This sounds ominously familiar for young people in today’s Ireland. Does government have the motivation or means to go beyond short-term electoral concerns to ensure this doesn’t happen?
Horan:I don’t see a pre- and post-crisis generation of insecurity emerging, as EU legislation gives equal status to different forms of employment. However, on current projections pensions for young people will be inadequate, unless the trend of the past 30 years of the wealthy capturing a disproportionate share of resources is reversed.
Since the crisis began, public discourse has centred on public-private, insider-outsider and now younger-older divisions. Those in our society comfortable with the status quo hope it remains that way.
Many of my generation, radicalised by the Vietnam war and the events of May 1968, fought for change in the 1970s, only to see it evaporate with the emergence of free market economics in response to high inflation. Today with high levels of debt, so many in negative equity and the return of mass youth unemployment, the reality is that the cure was worse than the disease. The younger generation need to outline a vision for a new society that will promote fairness, and the emergence of a genuine entrepreneurial class in the traded sector, in place of pyramid schemes, gambling on property and the use of public decisions by an elite to secure unearned wealth.
Hayden:Discourse that focuses solely on a public-private divide is simplistic and misses the point, but equally, some divisions are real.
Older people vote in greater numbers and reap the political returns when it comes to government policy. Frequently, the old are the wealthy, and they hold a disproportionate share of the wealth, some of it in pension entitlements.
We face an unprecedented pension crisis when the unfunded liabilities of this, much longer-lived generation need to be paid back by young workers in the stagnant Irish economy of tomorrow.
Vietnam and May 1968 caught the imagination and aspirations of young people about the kind of world they wanted to inherit. Today, leadership is lacking, and yesterday’s ideologies fail to articulate a change. In civil society, younger people are held at a convenient arms’ length from decision- making while insiders abound.
Asking that young people “outline a vision” requires that they are given a vantage from which to do so. Instead, older generations have closed ranks and pulled the ladder up after them.
Horan:I agree that many of my generation have a real advantage when it comes to pensions, and that far too little is being done to tackle youth unemployment, now close to 30 per cent. I don’t support singling out pensioners as a group, as there are many with very little or only the basic State pension. The strongest opponents of increasing PRSI contributions to close the gap are employers.
What young people need most from society today is decent jobs and an end to mass emigration. An unfortunate legacy of the Celtic Tiger era is an attachment to the low-tax model that contributed to the crisis.
Investment in education and research and development is critical to developing a new model with a strong indigenous sector to deliver jobs.
Nobody likes paying more tax, but there is no early solution without significant resources for investment. Due to the current structure of the euro, debt options are limited, but also more debt transfers the problem to the younger generation.
Ideas matter, and young people in Paris in May 1968 did not wait for their elders to challenge the establishment.
Hayden:This isn’t about singling out one group. It’s about recognising that a group has been singled out: the young.
Ideas do matter, but the ideas are there, and they’re not that complicated. Part of this must mean paying more taxes. Some of the promises about this in the heat of the last election should not have been made. That’s all part of the mix. Another part is means-testing for automatic entitlements like the over 70s medical card and child benefit.
Proper retraining programmes or a tax credit for childcare could go a lot further.
There’s a view out there that young people are uninterested or complacent. This is false. They’re pragmatic. Protesting to stop your government from fighting a war is simple: stop doing what you are doing. Cease. Desist.
Taking to the streets can seem futile in the face of the vagaries of European debt negotiations, or “red line” negotiations between unions and the government. The State itself is disempowered. But a political shift is happening as we speak, and even if young people aren’t voting in sufficient numbers today, they will tomorrow.
Clinton was right: we must all be in this together. I’m confident that there is a right way to distribute the burdens. But once we find it, putting it into practice will still demand bold leadership from young and old.
Horan:There have been big losers across all age groups in this crisis, but I accept that unless there is change young people could lose out.
There are no simple or easy solutions to this deep crisis. However, a temporary solidarity levy on wealth and incomes, as Germany had post-unification, merits examination. The architect of the welfare state William Beveridge minimised means-testing to abolish the poor law mentality and gain the support of the middle class. That is still important. Of course today there are areas that can be re-examined but it must be based on fairness. We will be a poorer society if we target people over 70.
In a globalised world the nation state has less influence. The euro is acting as a powerful federalising force, pushing deeper economic and fiscal integration with profound implications for our economy. We must increase our capacity to use the European single market as a route back to prosperity.
Overall I am optimistic for the younger generation, particularly if those including myself who can afford to do the most are prepared to do the most.