Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

The disappearance of twenty-somethings in Ireland

And what that means for fun.

Fri, Jan 10, 2014, 12:47


One of the most fascinating articles I read this week was this piece by John McCartney, director of research at Savills Ireland, about how a lack of twenty-somethings is having an impact on the mix of housing required in Ireland.

McCartney writes that the number of twenty-somethings living in Ireland has fallen by almost a quarter since 2009. That’s 23.2% nationally (which translates as 176,200 people), and greater in Dublin, with a decline of 26.3%. Crazy, eh? How did this happen? Well  60,786 people in their twenties have emigrated in just four years, gutting a substantial part of our young population. But that’s just a third of the disappearing twenty-somethings. The main cause, as McCartney points out, has older roots: falling birth rates in the 1980s that we’re now feeling the impact of. From 2000 to 2009, our twenty-somethings population was quite substantial, and now, with a chunk of a younger generation of twenty-somethings emigrating, the babies of the early 80s, (like me, I was born in 1983) have reached, or are heading into their 30s. It’s probably worth noting as well that a large percentage of immigrants to Ireland – particularly those from Eastern Europe who came here to work in construction – who have returned to their home countries since the crash were also in the twenty-something to thirty-something demographic.

McCartney’s focus on this change of demographics is about housing. He concludes “A critical element of this is to recognise that, in most locations, new residential development should be weighted towards family homes rather than apartments.” To generalise, families don’t want to live in apartments, and when people leave their twenties they tend to start families. Apartments are for youngsters. Less youngsters = less need for apartments.

There is a multi-layered housing crisis in Ireland at the moment. Let’s rip through some of the layers.
1. Ghost estates, the difficulties of living in them, and the proposed demolition of many of them.
2. People in negative equity, trapped in crippling mortgages, often in places they don’t want to live forever, and the impact that has on life in general.
3. People unable to offload homes they bought as investments or to flip before the crash hit, which are a huge financial drain.
4. People living in badly built apartments which has a psychological and practical impact on quality of life.
5. The need for social housing that isn’t currently being met.
6. A homeless population – particularly in the capital – that is being frozen out of renting from a housing shortage and rising prices in the private rental sector.
7. Increasing rents in the capital making it extremely difficult for students to find reasonable and affordable accommodation.
8. Increasing rents stalling people from moving – particularly again, in Dublin. The rental process has become as painful as it was the early to mid-2000s, with the old stories of queues outside apartments and houses for rent, people rocking up with deposits and two months rent in cash in their pockets, prospective tenants gazumping each other, the depressing and monotonous trawling of Daft.ie taking up hours, properties becoming over-priced and poor value for renters, and the general paralysis that causes.
9. The difficulties facing first-time buyers, considering banks are still cagey about lashing out mortgages and loans.
10. Local authorities who became temporary mortgage brokers for those who were refused mortgages form banks, now dealing with people falling into arrears.
11. A basic supply issue of properties in the capital. Very few are budging, which is increasing demand, yet there does seem to be some cash rich buyers on the market, as well as a lot of foreign investment.

Those are just a few of the issues with housing right now. Jim Carroll has a great post on some of the housing issues at the moment, and a link to the excellent Banter housing special that was on in the Twisted Pepper recently. I was in the audience for that, and it really was a hugely informative event that felt quite vital.

But a falling twenty-somethings population has much wider consequences than where people are going to end up living over the next decade. The mass emigration of people in their twenties, and the maturing of those who were in their twenties during the Celtic Tiger, has further social consequences for Ireland, and particularly for Dublin. It’s pretty obvious to observe the demographic that’s thriving socially in Dublin at the moment, simply summed up by the restaurant boom. Businesses open based on who is spending money. Bars and clubs have been slow to take advantage of decreasing rents and more flexible leases (this also has a lot to do with our archaic and rigid licensing laws), yet restaurants are thriving. It could be argued that there is perhaps too much value in the restaurant market right now, as a flux of mid-priced restaurants open their doors every month. “Cool” new restaurants are generally for thirty-somethings and forty-somethings, not for people in their early twenties, perhaps with the exception of Joe Macken’s Jo’Burger, Crackbird and Skinflint.

So can you imagine if there was a couple of new bars or clubs being opened by or for twenty-somethings every month in the capital? We’d think it was crazy. But that’s the story with restaurants because that’s where the highest social-life-consumer-spend is at the moment. Of course some bars have opened, but the most notable post-crash bars and clubs that have sprung up aren’t targeting the kids. While on the surface you might think that there has been a burst of activity in BarLand, this has really only been driven by two parties. Paddy McKillen (The Liquor Rooms, Madison, Bison, Garage, Workmans, Everleigh, Vintage Cocktail Club) and Alan Clancy (37 on Dawson Street, House on Leeson Street). The McKillens (Senior and Junior) have another four-story bar on the way on Dawson Street and a boutique hotel on Harcourt Street called The Dean.

So it’s not like there has been a load of entrepreneurial spirit amongst a large group of people, leading to the opening of licensed premises. It’s concentrated. These are people with keen business acumen and fairy deep pockets, taking advantage of opportunities and opening essentially what in my opinion are bars with strong “themes” (the chichi Liquor Rooms, which should probably change its name considering the last time I went the barman didn’t know how to make a margarita, the whiskey-heavy Bison with its horse saddles for stools, the hoarders paradise of 37, the baby-Krystle that is Everleigh, and the spit ‘n’ sawdust Garage.) In fact many of the bars – Madison, 37, House, Everleigh – hark back to the expensive refurbs and flashiness of the Celtic Tiger-era watering holes. The exception of this new-school mini barfest is Paul ‘Macker’ McNulty and co, who are going against the grain completely. Instead of pricey refits and Sindo social page-aimed launches, they’re sticking to the basics of rough and ready, casual and comfortable bars with decent beer and good tunes (Cassidy’s, P.Macs.) It’s working for them. Anyone who can turn a bar on Westmoreland Street into a cross between Whelans and Anseo deserves a medal. They’re not the only outsiders to have found a niche in the capital. The Galway Brewery team have expanded successfully in Dublin with Against The Grain and The Black Sheep – again, thirty-something stalwarts. I presume you can see a pattern emerging here. Two more thirty and forty-something post-crash newbies; Damson Diner (previously operated by the Breen Brothers as the South William) and Bagots Hutton across the road rarely have an 80s baby in sight, never mind a 90s one. Around the corner, Pygmalion/The PYG has re-marketed itself as a decent party spot (and, um, a tapas bar), and was buoyed hugely during the hot summer months as its expanding rows of tables and chairs ate into the paths in the area.

Clubs aimed at those born in the late 80s and early 90s aren’t opening because the market isn’t there. Remember, twenty-somethings are more broke than the now thirty-somethings were when they were in their twenties. Full employment is scarce, part-time work the same, and Mum and Dad are generally screwed so pocket money isn’t flush.

And it’s not just physical spaces that are an indicator of a lack of twenty-something enterprise in social/going out terms in Dublin. The lack of new club nights and certainly a lack of creativity in clubbing in Dublin is notable, but changing. The Twisted Pepper and the Bernard Shaw have been holding the fort for some time now in that department, and the Workmans has risen to the top too, along with Hidden Agenda in the Button Factory (which recently refurbished its interior in a way that feels like backtracking to the Music Centre’s original layout.)

Gay / queer club nights have generally led the field in Dublin in terms of influencing the mainstream, and have traditionally had more diverse crowds especially in the age of punters. But consistently the decent music-led alternative club nights that have appeared appealing to both straight and gay over the past few years have been run by people in their 30s; Mother, Together Disco, Crush, Bitches Be Crazy (which I was the resident DJ at). There’s a whole other blog post in how technology – and particularly apps such as Grindr – have impacted on the gay scene’s nightlife, not to mention emigration.

Pre-crash, new club nights would pop up all the time, most of them short-lived in what was a very competitive nightlife market with many events vying for the same bunch of people. But now, with venues concentrating more on bookings as opposed to bringing in external promoters to take a risk on building a crowd week in week out, there is a sense that nightlife has become slightly more restrictive in that department. Colin Perkins (23) DJs at Pygmalion, the Workmans and elsewhere. “I think it’s better now to be honest than it was four years ago. Everywhere seems busier… But I think what there is, is a lack of venues to do club nights in. With POD closing down, that had a big impact on club nights. So there’s the Button Factory, Pygmalion, Grand Social, the Workmans, and that’s pretty much it. And what’s there is being run from within, and the bookings are coming from promoters in charge of those venues… I think every venue has to be a jack of all trades now. They want to do food, they want to do everything. If you’re just ‘a club’, that means you’re opening from 11pm to 3am. You’re not going to make a killing. I certainly wouldn’t open a club that was just a club. That’s what happened with [the failure of] The Kitchen [relaunch].” This diversification within venues is typified by the most consistent space for quality electronic music, Twisted Pepper, also housing Vice coffee, Elastic Witch record store, Revolver Project clothing, Boxcutter Barbershop, and Super Hoshi video games. Without major cash, a club just counting on music-driven club nights wouldn’t last in Dublin right now. If it could, we’d have one.

One welcome trend that’s become obvious to anyone who has gone out on a Friday or Saturday night over the last couple of years is – despite rigid licensing laws – venues sneakily staying open for that bit longer. Perkins also points to opening hours which have quietly become more flexible, with clubs pushing the boundaries of what time you’re meant to close at, “it’s a lot more liberal now, places go to past 4am.” That ‘just keep going’ approach in some clubs, along with the occasional after-hours spot has given Dublin nightlife a slightly subversive feel.

Although the number of twenty-something independent promoters starting nights are low, Perkins cites promoters such as Bedlam as a contemporary success story, “They have a young crowd, and that crowd trusts them with what they book, so they have a following of 18 and 19-year-olds who’ll turn up.” Meanwhile Hidden Agenda continues to focus on booking quality – often big name – guests to draw punters in. Personally, Hidden Agenda is a night I would go to depending on the guest playing, I wouldn’t just pop in Cheers-style. But then again, I am 30 and therefore old.

Despite all of this, now that we’re out of the complete strangulation-depresso mode that fell like a suffocating cloud over the city for a couple of years as shutters slammed and mainstream student club nights began an unsustainable race to the bottom geared around drink promotions, Dublin has become far more lively over the last four years. I spent a large chunk of my twenties involved in club nights – SoundCheck at SPY, Bitches Be Crazy in a warehouse, Dive in the Lower Deck, and will probably start another one in 2014 for the laugh. The growth of alternative spaces (albeit sporadically) is also welcome. In the past few months I’ve DJd at warehouse and studio parties in Grand Canal Dock, off Thomas Street and off Baggot Street, but warehouse parties mean taking risks and keeping things under the radar.

So course there’s still loads of stuff going on. But it’s hardly surprising that the capital city doesn’t feel like one driven by or one accommodating twenty-somethings to the fore anymore when a quarter of the demographic is gone. Creative people in their twenties make cities fizz. Traditionally, they’re the demographic who start club nights and bands and create scenes. That movement now feels a little sluggish. What we need to consider now, is how to build a city that is attractive enough for young people to stay in it, and fitted with the infrastructure that will allow people in their twenties to thrive. That infrastructure has as much to do with venues taking risks on young promoters, alternative spaces housing parties, and people doing it for the love and not just the cash, as anything else. Focussing on the social elements of a city might seem superficial, but going out and having fun is as vital as anything else, and feeds down into making the city feel alive.