This will be no country for the young unless we fight for their future
With almost 60% of young people out of work, this State faces a long-term crisis unless action is taken now
Carphone Warehouse on Grafton Street in Dublin: The retailer’s closure resulted in the loss of almost 500 jobs, many of them perfect for younger people learning the value of work. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
One of the most gripping scenes in the Coen brothers’ classic, No Country for Old Men, sees Tommy Lee Jones as the self-doubting Sheriff Bell, as he goes to visit his wheelchair-bound uncle Ellis to seek advice.
In a gravelled, weary voice, the older man reminds his nephew that every generation before him had it tough at some stage or other.
“This country’s hard on people. You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you,” says Ellis, admonishing the younger man with his emphasis of the last word. Then he adds: “That’s vanity.”
When the pandemic hit last spring, Ireland, along with everywhere else, suddenly felt as if it was no country for the old. Thousands of them died or became seriously ill, and those who didn’t cowered at home in fear of the virus. All of us with elderly parents or grandparents bore witness to this.
So the nation dug in and sacrificed to protect the elderly. It wasn’t perfect protection – the country still had to function. And, at times, the seesawing public debate over how to balance the imperatives of public health with the need to keep the economy alive made Ireland seem less united than, in truth, it really was.
But overall, the strategy was somewhat effective and the country held enough of its fabric together until, as it seems has happened, scientists rode to the rescue by developing vaccines at lightning speed.
Almost all of our over 70s have now been vaccinated and our older people are emerging into everyday life once again. As the national effort has proven, this is a country for old men and women. They are valued here. But now we must face a new question: what sort of country is this to be for the young?
Their immediate prospects, especially for employment, look bleak. The question of their future demands an answer every bit as urgent and substantial as the one we just gave for the old.
Like uncle Ellis, it has been tempting during this pandemic for mature generations to cast a weary glance at the travails of younger people and wonder if their plight is really nothing but vanity.
So what if you can’t have parties, or go to college, or meet your friends, or snog strangers. “It ain’t all waiting on you,” we think, leaning, with all the weight of our smug self-perceived wisdom, on that final word. “You.” The iGeneration, the spoiled ones, the feckless kids who could kill us with their selfish risk-taking.
That attitude is, of course, completely unfair. The youth of this country are enduring a torridness that my generation, those who came of age as the Celtic Tiger roared into life, never faced, not even remotely.
Back then, nobody ever asked us to not behave like young people, yet that is what we ask of them now. Instead of shaming them for the odd infraction, we should be in awe at the extent of their compliance.
Even those of us who feel we understand this point occasionally fall into the finger-wagging trap. Last Saturday, I opened The Irish Times and saw that the Government was mulling prioritising the young for vaccines over those of us who are lumbering into the wilderness of middle age. It has a scientific rationale because the virus is spreading faster amongst the young. My immediate reaction was to view the proposal through the prism of my own desire for a swifter jab. I even suggested that the young might be rewarded for being reckless. But any of us can be reckless, old or young.
The truth is that almost every policy lever that has been pulled in this pandemic has dunked the young. The State shut down tourism and hospitality, which are traditionally two of the most fertile grounds for employment for the young. We didn’t just, as some suggest, stop young people from consuming pints or meals out. We took away their chances of earning a living by serving them.
The same goes for the retail sector, which will never be the same again after the pandemic passes. Carphone Warehouse announced its closure in Ireland this week. That is almost 500 jobs, many of them perfect for younger people learning the value of work, gone and they will never come back. You can throw those jobs onto the pile along with the others in Debenhams, Cath Kidston, House of Fraser, Laura Ashley, House of Ireland and the other retailers that have, or will, shut their doors for good.
Gabriel Makhlouf, the governor of the Central Bank, warned in February that there is a “question mark over the extent of retail” that will be left in this country in coming years, as tax and labour-efficient internet giants such as Amazon take over servicing much of consumer demand.
This week, he warned again that up to one-in-four SMEs could go bust after the State withdraws Covid supports. The bulk of those casualties will come in the tourism, hospitality and retail sectors that have been crushed by anti-virus restrictions, and where many young people find their first jobs.
The latest figures from the State show unemployment among young people aged 15-24 is almost 15 per cent, or two-and-a-half times the rate in the wider population. If you adjust it for businesses temporarily shut during periods of restrictions, the youth unemployment rate is a staggering 59.2 per cent.
That number should be flashing in bright red on the Government’s policy dashboard, more so than any other.
Unless the State urgently pulls together a coherent medium-term plan to address the issue of youth unemployment – where they will work, what they will do, how they will be trained to do it, and, also where they will live – this State will suffer its effects for decades to come. It requires a new national forum involving the public, private and civic sectors, to thrash out an agreed approach.
With everything that has happened over the past 14 months, this country can indeed be hard on people. But that very much includes young people whose economic prospects are gravely imperilled. And, yes, we do have to stop what’s coming, because we are the only ones who can. It’s definitely not all waiting on them.
Finally, no matter what Ellis said, the complaints of the young are not always an expression of vanity on their behalf. Not this time. The pandemic has changed the game. Now that this is once again a country for the old, saving the future for the young has become the most serious and intractable issue that we all must face.