Irish twentysomethings, part 1: ‘We live in a liberal echo chamber’

Ireland’s ‘fed-up’ generation talk about their lives, hopes, dreams and pet hates. Just don’t call them millennials

Born in the 1980s and 1990s Ireland's ‘fed-up generation', talk about their lives, dreams and pet hates. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

This article is part of a series in which a group of Irish twentysomethings discussed issues affecting their lives. Click here to read their views on rent, drink and drugs and here for an ex-twentysomething's view of this generation.

Do you identify with your generational label? Does the term baby boomer resonate with the life you have led over the past six decades? Or is Generation X a fair indicator of your childhood and teenage years in the 1970s and 1980s?

When today’s twentysomethings were born, in the 1980s and 1990s, the word “millennial” sounded foreign and futuristic. A couple of decades later, the term – coined by social scientists and market researchers – is ubiquitous.

Twentysomethings have grown accustomed to negative stereotypes often associated with a supposedly narcissistic and lazy generation. Almost every day the online media coughs out yet another analysis of why people in this age group are too busy drinking craft beer and eating sushi to buckle down and build a future for themselves.

They don’t often see themselves that way, however. Fewer than half of 18- to 34-year-olds consider themselves millennials, according to a study by the US-based Pew Research Center in 2015.

As 28-year-old Shane Byrne, from Harold’s Cross in Dublin, sees it, we have become the “fed-up generation”, the generation that believes our governments could have treated us a lot better, providing us with far more support, both emotional and financial.

“I’m from a middle-class background,” Byrne says. “I didn’t attend a private school, and my parents weren’t rich, but I’m cognisant of my privilege. I’ve also learned Ireland hasn’t been a particularly kind place in many ways. The most vulnerable suffered most from austerity.

“That’s become clear to lots of my generation, that things could be better, and that has led to the increase in activism. We march more. We protest more. We believe in change.”

Byrne, an actor and performer with the Dublin-based theatre company THEATREclub, was one of the five young women and men who met at the Science Gallery in Dublin recently to talk about what it means to be in your 20s in Ireland today.

The focus group was chaired by me – I’m 29 – and cofacilitated by Gerard O’Neill of Amárach Consulting, who has extensively researched this age group.

Like Byrne, Tess Brady asked that we disregard the use of the term “millennial” during our morning discussion. The 27-year-old works for a mental-health charity called MyMind.

“It’s a term imported from other countries and media organisations. You’re given these traits of selfishness and sensitivity which just don’t ring true for me all. It’s linked with trend pieces that try and make you, by virtue of your age, equivalent to someone living in San Francisco who leads a completely different life.”

So what is their life experience, and how do they view the world they live in? What are their attitudes to jobs, careers, social media, home, sex, marriage and dating?

This is the first of two articles in which our focus group of five answer these and many other questions about life for Irish twentysomethings. Boom and bust: ‘I began my 20s in austerity’

Although the people who took part in our focus group were born within 10 years of each other, their experiences of coming of age in 21st-century Ireland have been starkly different because of Ireland’s fluctuating economic situation in recent years.

Shane Byrne, who sat his Leaving Cert in 2006, left school at a time when prosperity in Ireland seemed like a never-ending road.

“I went through school during the boom times, when we were encouraged to do whatever we wanted. We had this prosperity and didn’t understand that there was such a thing as a recession or a boom. But just when I got to the age where I could decide what I wanted everything fell apart, and I began my 20s in austerity.

“I’m aware that someone who is 21 mightn’t share this experience. The recession was a part of their growing up, which is so different to my teenage years.”

TJ Butler, a 23-year-old PhD student in computational biology at Dublin Institute of Technology, went through his teens accompanied by the incessant hum of economic disaster.

“We grew up hearing about how the world was going to end. The sea levels are rising, the money is dropping, it’s all doom and gloom.”

Contrary to the stereotype that assumes twentysomethings are lazier than previous generations, Butler believes this period of desperation and darkness pushed his peers to prove that they had the intelligence and drive to make the seemingly impossible possible and bring optimism and opportunity back into society.

All the negativity pushed us to choose between being hopeful or just sitting in a dark room and crying ourselves to sleep every night. It has spurred us on to say, ‘Right, we can still make the change’.”

Emerging from the education system into austerity was made even more challenging by the uncertainty many young people face when they step into the real world of jobs and relationships. For 26-year-old Ciara Walsh, moving from college in Limerick to work in Dublin, four years ago, was “like going through puberty all over again”.

I made very good friends when I moved here, but there’s a total state of flux when you leave college. I think it’s worse than being a teenager: you’re just flailing through your early 20s. And then you come to a bit of sense of equilibrium. You realise the friends that have been around you for the past couple of years are your family.”

Walsh has worked in marketing, advertising and hospitality and will begin a new job with a Norwegian company based in Dublin this month.

Ali Ayden, an engineering student at DIT who turned 22 in September, has developed more of an appreciation for his family since starting college.

“When you’re in your 20s you start to think less about yourself, because in your teens it’s all about you. I’m more focused now on my family, my parents and what my sisters are doing. I’m in third year now, when you start realising life is not all about college. There is an afterlife, and you start to seek out opportunities. That realisation does hit you hard.”

Social media: ‘I’m looking at a screen 18 hours a day

The five participants in our focus group, who all consume news through social media, expressed concern at the online echo chamber they inhabit, which led them to believe that the UK would vote to remain in the European Union and that Hillary Clinton would be elected president of the United States.

“We’re the first generation to grow up with mass information available,” Byrne says. “While it can sometimes feel like you’re more connected to the world around you and the people far away, the reality is your newsfeed just shows you what you want to see. The algorithms give us a narrower view of the world, and we see things said by people like us who think like us, dress like us, eat and speak like us.”

The big-brother society we live in and our readiness to click the terms-and-conditions box without a moment’s hesitation means our online activity is immediately available for platforms such as Facebook and Google to create the biased newsfeed we consume, according to Ciara Walsh.

“The second I download Facebook on my phone and agree to the terms and conditions, they have all my information. I’m looking at my phone or a screen for probably 18 hours a day and being sucked into my own little echo chamber with my friends.

“I like pro-choice stuff, and a lot of the information I read online comes from a very anti-establishment background. So now that’s what I’m served all the time. Then Donald Trump gets elected and I’m like, ‘What the hell?How did that happen?’ ”

Abortion: ‘We live in a liberal echo chamber’

In Ireland many young people are living in a “liberal echo chamber” where they think everyone wants to repeal the Eighth Amendment, Walsh says. But, she adds, she’s still waiting to hear “a well-balanced argument” from the anti-abortion lobby on why the Eighth Amendment, which recognises the right to life of an unborn child, and is an effective ban on abortion, should not be repealed.

“I’m waiting for somebody to make me think you have a valid reason for campaigning [against repealing the amendment] in such a hateful way.”

Growing up, Tess Brady says, she never imagined abortion would be available to women in Ireland during her lifetime. But the surge in youth participation in the call for a repeal of the Eighth Amendment gives her hope that change can happen.

The country can change really quickly in a positive way, because we saw this year that the world can also change very quickly in a negative way.

“I see the Eighth Amendment being repealed, and it’s really exciting, but it’s going to be a hard few years. However, I’ve a problem with ill-informed voices being amplified for a false sense of balance in the debate. I have an issue with cherrypicking a few young people to be the face of an anti-repeal movement for the appearance of balance.”

Brady describes the stance of the anti-abortion lobby as “extreme” and says the nation must move beyond its “archaic” approach to women’s reproductive rights.

Shane Byrne, whose theatre company has created a piece of artwork to highlight the experience of women who have travelled abroad for abortions, admits that it would be difficult for a person in their 20s who was anti-abortion to speak openly among peers who are predominantly liberal in their views.

He says that those against abortion are entitled to voice a measured opinion but that he will continue to vehemently disagree with their stance.

“It was much easier to dismiss any view you like when we had the big conversation about marriage equality, but repealing the Eighth is a human-rights issue. I think it’s good that their voices can’t be heard, because this is about human rights.”

Walsh believes the outcome of the marriage-equality referendum and the success of the Yes campaign opened the eyes of young people to their ability to create real change in society.

“People in their 20s have really grasped that their voices can be heard.”

Before Ali Ayden began his studies at DIT he had never heard about the Eighth Amendment, and he became interested in the same-sex-marriage debate only because his best friend was gay.

Ayden was born in Turkey and lived in Germany, France and England with his family before moving to Ireland, 17 years ago. He describes his Muslim upbringing as traditional and conservative and says his three years at university have transformed his outlook on life.

An active member in the DIT student union, Ayden recalls his parents’ shock when their son arrived home from a student-welfare event with a rucksack full of condoms.

“My parents are real old-school and strict, and the person I was when I started college is very different from the person I am now. In college I got involved in the students’ union, and you hear people talk about these issues first-hand, go home and self-reflect and realise that it just makes more sense than agreeing with your family. It was refreshing to hear someone else’s stories and have a conversation with someone that really made me understand.

“I’m not really religious, but I’m not atheist either. I’m Muslim on paper, I’d say. If I didn’t get involved in the students’ union I might not have had these opinions.”

Sex: ‘Never have anal sex, our teacher told us’

Despite the age gap between the participants in the discussion, the overall consensus is that sex education in Irish schools continues to be poorly taught, with too much focus on the biological function of sexual intercourse rather than on the emotions and feelings tied up with sex. There is also a gap in education and guidance when it comes to students’ sexual orientation and the types of sex people have.

Shane Byrne remembers the first and only sex-education class he had in sixth class of primary school, when the boys and girls were split into different rooms. Then, in first year of secondary school, during a social, personal and health education class, Byrne’s teacher made a statement that deeply confused his 12-year-old student.

“It was an all-boys secondary school, and he said that sometimes you may feel attracted to another boy. He even said you may even find yourself getting an erection but added that ‘what that means is that you admire him; you just want to be like him’. I often wonder how far that set me back in terms of fully accepting myself.”

TJ Butler, who went through secondary school nearly six years after Byrne, agrees that the Irish education system fails to offer support or guidance for a young teenager confused about his sexuality.

“For my very last SPHE class the teacher’s parting wisdom was, ‘Please, children, never, ever have anal sex. Just don’t do it.’ That was her final message . . . Like, what?”

For teenage girls in the early 2000s, the word “consent” was meaningless.

“Consent was never spoken about, so whatever about sex education and mechanics, there was nothing about feelings, consent or any of the grey areas,” Tess Brady says. “I wonder if things are getting better in schools now, but back then they were telling you this information just because they had to.”

The experience of relationships and dating has changed hugely in the lifetimes of these twentysomethings. When Byrne, Brady and Walsh first delved into the world of relationships, mobile phones were Nokias and used purely for texting and playing Snake. More than a decade later, mobile dating, using platforms such as Tinder, is the accepted norm.

“There’s a realisation at my age, a few years after leaving college, that you don’t get that automatic introduction to friends’ friends any more,” Brady says. “You realise that, if you actually want to meet people, online dating is a good avenue. There’s no stigma or shame any more; it’s a way of meeting people.”

Butler is not a big fan of online dating.

“It completely removes any ability for you to let your traits show through. If you’re funny or charming or caring, you can’t show any of that in that instant interaction when you see someone’s photo.”

Last year Ali Ayden tried to explain Tinder to his parents. The conversation did not go well.

“They hated the idea of such a platform. But then again they’re the ones showing me pictures of girls, asking, ‘Do you want to marry her?’ My parents would love for me to get married right now. If I was back in Turkey now I would be married. The girl would have to be Turkish, Muslim, fit these criteria.

“As the only boy in the family, marriage is a responsibility and a duty for me. Obviously I want to make my parents happy, but the whole concept of an arranged marriage is a bit alien to me.”

Shane Byrne had little interest in marriage in his early 20s, but he is increasingly attracted to the idea of making a long-term commitment to a partner, especially since the passing of the marriage-equality referendum.

“In your late 20s you do start to think about the future. I’m gay, I’m single, I’m 28, and if I want to have children that’s quite complicated – and I haven’t even got a boyfriend. When in the hell am I going to work out how to go through the 10-year adoption process?

“Marriage isn’t essential for me, but it is a promise to try and be with someone, and I think that’s nice. But relationships are changing, and it’s not like before, when you got married and stayed unhappy forever. There’s divorce if it ends up badly. But my parents are 35 years happily married, and that’s your prime example, from your family.”

Body image: ‘The cult of wellness is stifling’

One thing that has rapidly changed since these twentysomethings were at school is the use of social-media platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram. For the older members of the group social media was practically nonexistent during their school years, while those in their early 20s were avid Facebook users.

“We just missed out on that space where everything was barraged at you, all these Snapchat beauty filters, we didn’t have them as teens,” TJ Butler says. “Thank Christ for that. As a teenager I was exceptionally unsure of my body image, and it’s only really in the last year or so I’ve said, ‘Actually, I like me.’

Butler volunteers with the Bodywhys eating-disorders association, where he says the negative impact of social media on young people’s body image is becoming increasingly apparent.

He worries that not enough focus is put on young men whose perception of themselves is deeply affected by the barrage of online images of muscular male models with perfectly sculpted six-packs.

Butler also argues that men’s warped perception of women’s bodies and unreal expectations of sex are creeping into their personal relationships because of all the pornography they watched growing up.

“In this age of digital literacy every 13- or 14-year-old boy with a computer is going to be Googling porn. I have one friend who basically can’t be in a relationship now, because his whole idea of sex is distorted by what he saw as a teenager.”

Shane Byrne says the images presented by gay media and marketing are equally damaging to young men struggling to accept how they look.

“There was this picture of guy with his thumb in his Speedo with ridiculously ripped abs, and I’m like, ‘I don’t have those.’ I do have sex, and I get STI tests, but I don’t have any of those bits that are apparently required.”

Tess Brady says Instagram users and bloggers posting about their healthy, protein-filled, green-juice diet is just the latest step in society’s obsession with having the “perfect” body.

“The cult of wellness is stifling, and I think it’s so unhealthy. It’s equating the physical body with this sense of Puritanism and being a good person – eating good food and doing good exercise. They Instagram these images, and it really upsets me.

“It’s incredibly damaging for young men to be overexercising and taking supplements too young. We have no idea of the implications of that.”

Ali Ayden, who goes to the gym and does tae kwon do, has noticed friends who used to play soccer and GAA relying heavily on supplements.

“I’ve seen more and more people going down the route of supplements just to get that quick fix. They go to the gym for half an hour but then pump themselves with a load of supplements.”

Our generation: ‘People assume you have endless tech knowledge’

TJ Butler, who has lived in New York and Liverpool, says his peers are more interested in spending their earnings on life experiences rather than in saving for a car or house.

“I think we’re very much the experiential generation. We live to experience things and places. Lots of people are going on their gap year after college, and discovering themselves and all that lark.

“People finish college and say, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing with my life; let’s travel for a while’. I think it’s good in terms of Ireland being traditionally a very closed country, and by going abroad and travelling and experiencing the world – the real world as opposed to just being touristy – that brings a lot back to our culture.”

Butler hopes this interest in living abroad and mixing with different cultures will have a knock-on effect in motivating the State to take in more refugees and recognise the importance of opening our doors to international communities.

Is Irish society overly focused on national priorities rather than world affairs? Shane Byrne argues that Irish people are already “quite worldly”. “I would say we’re good consumers of news and know what’s going on in the world.”

He says today’s twentysomethings are notably more open-minded, with a stronger sense of social justice, than previous generations.

“It should be acknowledged that we are likely to be a more worldly, tolerant and accepting generation. We’re more tactile than our predecessors and speak more openly about how we feel, what we think, the sex we have, the drugs we take.”

Irish society should also learn to look beyond the date of birth of younger generations and appreciate the experience young people have gained in their relatively short lives, according to Ciara Walsh.

“People in Ireland are obsessed with your age. I remember when I was doing my CV recently I didn’t have my date of birth on it, and someone I’d see as a mentor told me to put my age on it. It’s that expectation of the stage you’re at in your life and how they can use that to their advantage.”

Tess Brady would like friends and colleagues to avoid jumping to conclusions about people’s ability and backgrounds based on the schools they attended.

“People here like to know your secondary school, which doesn’t happen in other countries. It’s to situate you. I also think there’s a level of sexism as well as ageism in work, because I do get that, ‘Oh, little girl, what are you doing here?’, even though I feel like I’ve really aged out of my little-girl phase.

“I’m solidly in my late 20s now. It’s patronising. That twinned with the assumption that you have all this endless technical knowledge. I do not.”

Butler, who fears that one day he will have to move abroad for a job in academia, views his 20s as a combination of the worst times with the best times: a severe lack of job security versus getting involved in the latest call for social justice and “doing all these great things that in my eyes are championed by people in their 20s”.

“It’s super cringey, but when I think about being in my 20s in Ireland what comes to mind is the Dickens quote: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’

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