Liam O’Ruairc, 39: ‘This generation will have a worse life than the one before them’
Photograph: Stephen Davison/Pacemaker
Liam O’Ruairc lives in Belfast
My father, Eamonn, is from the lower Falls Road. He was part of the generation in the North who had access to further education. He ended up working for the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, where he met my mother, Corinne, in 1970. They moved to Brussels, where he worked for the European Commission, and I was born there.
I lived in Brussels until 1998. I have an Irish name, but I don’t sound Irish. My first language is French. We came back every year to Ireland. I have an Irish passport. I’m an Irish citizen.
For me nationality is not important, but citizenship is. My Ireland is not the Ireland of the four green fields. What I feel the most affinity to is the fifth province: a republic of the mind. I’m an outsider here, and I have an ability to see things from a critical distance.
When I was about 14 I became very politicised. I was confused, and I was trying to make sense of the world. My life was full of contradictions about who I was and where I belonged. My first degree was in philosophy, because I had to think about these contradictions. I did that degree in Brussels.
In 1998 I moved to Belfast to do an MA in Irish politics in Queen’s. I wanted to do it here because of the political situation, and I was interested in the peace process. The political economy of Northern Ireland really interested me. I was interested in the growth of new Catholic money, and the new middle class. My sense of Belfast when I moved here was a feeling of exhaustion of the political ideologies.
When I moved here first I shared a three-bedroom house in west Belfast that was worth about £30,000-£40,000. By 2007 it was £240,000. How is that possible? I saw the whole property thing as high-risk. I knew it was going to go down, because I saw the whole thing as unsustainable. There was so much pressure to buy somewhere. The best decision I have ever made was to rent and not to get involved in property. If I had bought an apartment I would be in debt for life.
After my master’s I worked first for a small company, then was unemployed and then worked in call centres for a time. Private-sector wages are the lowest in the UK here. The only place you can get a decent job is in the public sector. For the last eight years I have been working in the accounts-payable section of an engineering company where a lot of their work has recently been outsourced to China.
My current job has no connections whatsoever with philosophy, so that is another contradiction I have to live with. I could try and get another job, but with age you become conservative, and starting from scratch becomes more difficult.
This is the first generation that I think will have a worse life than the generation before them. My parents would think they have had a better life than my grandparents. My father is retired for a year; he took early retirement, something I don’t think I will be able to afford. I will be working tilluntil I am 70 or older. I think what is ahead for my generation is not progress but going backwards.
The way I see it, work is almost like a vampire that sucks you. I need to have a roof over my head, so I work, but true freedom begins where work ends. Most people I know have their real interests outside work. I think people work too much. I believe that is going to hit this generation like a ton of bricks. We are a generation who will have to work longer than our parents, and probably only in temporary contracts, because there are so few jobs for life now.
There are three kinds of culture that you see here: victim culture, therapy culture and inquiry culture. If you compared the rates of mental illness pre- and post-peace process there is not much change, but the number of people who now want to have formal inquiries is so much higher.
It can be about anything – health and safety, anything. Instead of people calling for a collective response to whatever they are unhappy with at work, they call in sick. People don’t see themselves as part of something bigger and wider, part of a community. They withdraw into themselves and become atomised. It’s a culture of narcissism.
I am single, I haven’t bought property and I don’t have children. If I had any of these I’d feel older. I don’t have worries. My life so far has been spared the responsibilities of most of my peers. I feel more like I’m in my late 20s, early 30s.
Is it possible to escape politics in Northern Ireland? I try to avoid divisive topics, especially politics; politics is a useless passion.
The previous generation would have relied less on credit than we do now. I keep thinking of the photograph that was in the media in 2007 when the first Ikea store opened in Belfast. It was a picture of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, sitting together at the opening, on a big Ikea sofa. To me the subtext couldn’t have been clearer: what matters here now is not lost sovereignty, because the new sovereignty of Northern Ireland is the consumer.