Life at 30: ‘You feel like you haven’t started your life yet’

Today's young adults face high rents and stalled wages. Was it any easier in 2001, or even in 1981?

Life in Ireland is not easy for those in their 20s and early 30s. They are earning less in real terms than they might have in the 1990s or 2000s. They are grappling with higher rents and wages that have plateaued, according to a report published this week by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).

Those turning 30 this year may be the first to have lower living standards than the previous generation. As a result of this and changing social expectations, they are also settling into committed relationships later, pushing out starting a family, and are less likely to regard the job they’re in as the one they’ll have for life. Home ownership for many has become a pipedream. The data suggests a troubling picture of economic uncertainty and personal as well as wage stagnation. But it’s also true that today’s 30 year olds are entering adulthood in a more socially progressive Ireland.

30 in 2021: ‘You’re just going round on a hamster wheel’

People who turn 30 in 2021 “are the first generation that are not going to be seeing the same sort of advancement relative to their parents”, says Alan Barrett of the ESRI. “The psychology of that is quite important. The in-built cycle that ‘we’ll all do better than our parents’ generation” has come grinding to a halt, and with it, optimism about the future has leached away.

The unemployment rate for April 2021 was 5.8 per cent, with the Covid-adjusted rated at 22.4 per cent, according to CSO data. The average salary in 2021 was €48,946 and the average house price nationally was €264,867 in 2020, according to the same data.

Although it feels as though house prices have skyrocketed, average house prices nationally are only about 1.5 times higher than they were 20 years earlier in 2001, says David Higgins, a research analyst with Carraighill. He likes to use a wage-to-house price ratio. If a worker on the average wage – which he estimates at €845 weekly – was to save 100 per cent of what they earned and buy the average house in cash, it would take them 6.75 years, he estimates. “In the 80s, it took 5.4 years. By 2001 it had risen to 7.4 years. But it has fallen again. So this is very counterintuitive to the narrative that’s out there.”

And yet, for many, home ownership feels further out of reach.

Part of this is due to the fact that people are staying single for longer – it's easier to buy a house as part of a couple – and part of it is down to stricter Central Bank lending rules. "The wage-to-house price ratio can be the same across two generations, but because lending is so restrictive now, people have to wait for longer and save for longer, and that causes political and social problems," he says.

Barrett says that “one of the reasons we have such problems is that we have more people working and we have net inward migration”.

'Having a child in creche full-time is the same price as a mortgage nearly'

By all measures, Dan Nugent “should be flying it”. He is moving through the milestones of adulthood at the pace of someone born 20 years earlier. Now 30, he has two children, aged five and five months. When he and partner Sacha Cahill found themselves in their late 20s with a baby, renting a home in south Co Dublin, and struggling to make ends meet in graduate jobs – “I don’t think we’d even a spare €100 at the end of the month” – they decided to start a business “as a hobby”.

That business, Ambr Eyewear, sells anti-blue light glasses to reduce eye strain and it took off, turning over €200,000 in the first year, and €800,000 last year. And yet, they haven’t been able to buy a home. Banks are reluctant to lend to self-employed people, and they live in an area where there is intense competition for houses. “We feel like we’ve done everything the right way. We had our kids younger, we made a lot of sacrifices to save for a deposit.”

What’s it like being 30 in Ireland today? “Frustrating,” he says. “Having a child in creche full-time is the same price as a mortgage nearly. The competition for houses is massive. If houses go for sale, the asking price goes up by 10 per cent within a couple of hours. So people are forced to rent, which is even more expensive than a mortgage would be. And then you’re stuck in a trap where you’re paying so much rent you can’t add to your deposit, and you’re just going around on a hamster wheel.”

Ali Brennan, who works in financial services, shares that sense of being on a hamster wheel. “The goals are the same: home ownership, starting a family, career success. They’re still the cornerstones of adult life. But it’s definitely more and more difficult to see them happening.” This is borne out in the statistics. CSO data shows that the mean age of first marriage – another of those cornerstones for many – is climbing steadily. In 2019, it was 36.8 years for men and 34.8 years for women. Higgins points out that if the marriage rate stays on this trajectory, people in 2041 will be marrying at 40.

The ESRI identified wage stagnation as an issue for people in their 20s and 30s, but Brennan’s career has taken off over the last two years. Feeling optimistic about the future, she and her partner moved in with her parents in January 2020, with the aim of living there for 12 months while they each put aside €1,000 a month for a deposit. But Covid derailed their plans. Her partner “has had two periods of unemployment” in the last year, so the plans to buy have gone on hold and they are in a limbo familiar to many 30 year olds. She would love to buy the kind of house her parents bought for IR£30,000 in the early 1980s. But today, it would cost between €500,000 and €600,000. She still hopes to live close to her parents, but there’s little available within a 30-minute radius.

“We’ve talked about our future, we’ve always said, ‘yes, we would probably like to get married, we would definitely like to have a family’, but it’s always house first. You can’t really move forward with any of those other goals until you know where you’re living. It’s a red line. It’s a hard stop.”

Many of her friends are in the same situation. “If you’re not at home with your parents, you’re in a house share with three or four other people in your early 30s.”

For those who do manage to buy in their 30s, they often rely on help from their parents, which is one of the less visible factors skewing the market, suggests Barrett. “One of the reasons the housing market is so difficult for a certain proportion of people is that parents are clearly passing all the wealth to kids earlier.”

'I feel we're coping rather than thriving. Not to be grim about it, but I don't see where my generation is going to go until we start inheriting our parents' houses'

At 30, Damien Ryan has experienced the wage stagnation the ESRI highlighted. He works in tech, but among his friendship group, “we’re all still in jobs that don’t feel like careers. The wages go up about 2 per cent a year”.

He’s still renting and as a single person, “buying feels like an insurmountable mountain”. In many respects, “you feel like you haven’t started your life yet”.

He has rented in London, Madrid and Sweden where “it always seemed like the market was set up for renters. When I was looking for a place in London, the agent picked me up in his car and drove me around. Here you’re standing in the rain for 30 minutes waiting for the landlady to show up”.

He appreciates the freedom he has that he wouldn’t have enjoyed in previous generations. “When I was young and I knew I was gay, I never thought I’d be able to live here. But I feel we’re coping rather than thriving. Not to be grim about it, but I don’t see where my generation is going to go until we start inheriting our parents’ houses.”

30 in 2001: ‘The housing market was in the early stages of stratosphere’

If he had to pick a year in which to turn 30, 2001 would be it, says Barrett. “That group were really blessed. These were the folks who were living the real Celtic Tiger dream.” The economy was strong and they would have had confidence that their salary was going to carry on growing, “and everything was going to be positive”. And for many it was.

Certainly for Brian Foley, “there was no sense that it would be difficult to buy a house or get a mortgage”. At 30, he was working in the first generation of internet companies and lost his job that year when the dotcom bubble burst. But it didn’t cause him much stress and with unemployment at just 3.9 per cent, he quickly got another job. That November, he and his partner put a deposit of €12,000 on his first house – a two-bed in Swords worth €172,000, with the help of the first-time buyers’ grant of €3,000.

The average price for a second-hand house in 2001 was €206,117, while new houses were €182,863, according to the CSO – nearly five times higher than they had been 20 years earlier. Inflation was at 5.4 per cent, the nominal wage was €471 per week. It would have taken someone earning it 7.4 years of work to pay for a house, estimates Higgins. “People think the last 20 years have seen property prices surge. Actually the big surge happened in the 1980s and 1990s.”

And yet, for many, buying a house felt achievable, partly because access to finance was easier. The other key difference, suggests Barrett, is that people didn’t inevitably rent first – they often lived with their parents until they bought a home, which made it easier to save the deposit.

By the time he turned 30 in 2001, chef Mark Anderson – who is now a culinary director of a catering company – had emigrated, returned to Ireland, got married, become a father to twins and bought his first house in Bray, Co Wicklow, queueing outside an estate agent’s on a Saturday morning to pay the deposit. “The housing market was in the early stages of stratosphere.” He and his wife were later able to use the equity in that home to trade up to a much bigger house without increasing his mortgage payments.

Ireland has been good to him – “or I’ve been good to it” – but he worries about what he sees as rising inequality, a widening gap between the wealthy and the disadvantaged, and the impact that will have on the younger generation. “The middle ground is slipping away.”

'Entering our 30s we had a mad few years of great craic. Now, you're facing a much more uncertain future'

Like Foley and Anderson, Catherine McPadden – who at the age of 30 was working freelance as a visual merchandiser – had little difficulty getting a mortgage. “At the time, when you went to a broker, you could say I was doing this or that nixer” and few questions were asked. “They weren’t looking at your bank accounts.”

She and her then-partner bought a new build in Lucan in 1999. “It was kind of the Celtic Tiger days, we were able to go on holiday and you didn’t have to make enormous sacrifices” to save for a deposit or pay a mortgage. “Our friends were all buying at that time.”

Like others of her generation, she ended up in negative equity following the banking crash, but she has no regrets. “I’m going to be paying that mortgage for a very long time in my life. But I’ve my own roof, I’ve my own key in my front door.” She feels lucky to have come of age when she did. “I think it’s much harder now.”

“Entering our 30s we had a mad few years of great craic,” says Foley. “Now, you’re facing a much more uncertain future. The certainties we had are disappearing – the job for life, the getting on the property ladder. They’re all kiddults, stuck in limbo between their childhood home and adult lives.”

But, he adds, “I think if I was lucky, today’s 70-year-olds were spectacularly lucky.”

30 in 1981: ‘There was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow’

In reality, things were more difficult for those turning 30 in 1981. “People in Ireland entered the 1980s with a real sense of the country being in a really bad state,” says Barrett, and that had an impact on your economic outlook. “The 1980s group would have had a very depressed perspective.”

Inflation was staggeringly high. The CSO’s consumer price index recorded an increase of 23.3 per cent in December 1981. This made it eye-wateringly expensive to live, but conversely was good for mortgage holders. “The simplest way to put it is that inflation is a real friend to people who are borrowers,” says Barrett.

“The people in the 1970s did well, because inflation tended to be reflected in their wages. They borrowed more money, but while interest rates were high and prices were high, the real value of the mortgage tended to decline.”

'You always had a feeling that there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. My generation just had to wait, but you knew it would happen. This generation don't have that'

The unemployment rate was 10 per cent, and the nominal weekly earnings were €143 – that’s €429 in real terms when adjusted for purchasing power. The average price of a new house was €40,167, and someone on the average wage had to work for 5.4 years to pay for it, Higgins estimates.

In 1981, Brian Flynn had just become a father for the first time and moved to Tramore, Co Waterford into the second home he owned, for which he and his wife paid £42,000. That was over five times the £7,500 salary he earned at Ibec, but he also had a company car and his wife had a second car. At the time, “a house was roughly two and a half cars”. Parts of the country might have been “a basket case” but “you were always comfortable that you would get a house. The only problem was building up a deposit in the building society. But you always had a feeling that there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. My generation just had to wait, but you knew it would happen. This generation don’t have that”.

Among the most stressful times in his life was seeing his own children's past struggles to secure their houses. Having voted for Fine Gael and the Progressive Democrats in the past, "I'm having serious thoughts about voting Sinn Fein" when the next election happens.

Is it really such a bad time to be 30?

"We have fetishised property ownership to a degree that is socially unhealthy" and that is having real negative effects, says professor Brendan Kelly of Trinity College Dublin. Owning a home can bring a sense of stability, but he believes the extent to which we have allowed our romantic relationships to "become the fundamental building block of most property ownership" is problematic. "We're placing an awful lot of weight on romantic relationships."

Housing is undoubtedly the biggest issue facing 30 year olds, agrees David Higgins. “The problem is... lots and lots of people looking for a small number of available properties. We need to increase the number of available properties. And if you steer investment funds towards helping, instead of interfering with that, they’re not a problem.”

Despite this, he is generally optimistic. Advances in science and technology, along with the positive social changes of the past 10 years, will all contribute to a better quality of life.

Kelly believes young people are resilient, but the housing issue is “a new obstacle and it does get to the very firmament on which many of us in our 40s have based our lives. It is possible to get through this, but it does mean altering expectations about what they might buy and when they might buy it”.

The one certainty is that “they will live with more uncertainty”. For wider society, this “intergenerational injustice” will lead to an “erosion of our social capital – social capital being the degree to which we are tied together”.

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