Division exists on climate change and mask mandates amid increasing polarisation of views in Ireland

Survey points to increased polarisation of people’s views and populist politics on social and political issues, with technology at least in part to blame

Paul Scott B&A graphic

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Many – if not almost all - Irish people got through the global health emergency of recent years by telling themselves that once it was over there would surely be a post-pandemic payback, a boom lasting years with carefree and hedonistic celebrations, the like of which our world had not seen since the Roaring Twenties or the Swinging Sixties.

But while Ireland was making plans for what it might do when Covid ended, the gods were laughing.

And instead of the carefree celebrations we thought we might have we are now heading into a protracted period of gloomy unease and tough times economically – what the B&A survey has dubbed an age of “hyper-uncertainty”, in a world more fretful and unpredictable than it has seemed at any point in modern Irish history.

But while the B&A Sign of the Times 2022 report suggests an age of hyper-uncertainty, it might be more accurate to call it an age of hyper-anxiety, with the waves of bad news sometimes seeming overwhelming and potentially crippling.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the shocking spike in inflation – rising to levels not seen since the early 1980s – have now joined Covid (which hasn’t gone away) as causes of great concern for Irish people, the report suggests.

And with the absence of any class of reliable road map into the future many are also increasingly fretful as to what might happen next. It now seems clear that rather than a blip in the timeline, the Covid experience is a reflection of the inherent instability of the world we live in. And the absence of power many people have to effect real change.

The signs of anxiety are everywhere in the survey, with even some of the arguably positive things in our world a cause for concern.

While many people might well celebrate the increasingly connected world we live in, with streaming services and lightening fast broadband (at least for some) giving us an unlimited choice when it comes to information and entertainment, many are not so convinced. As many as 54 per cent of people told B&A researchers that they agreed with the statement that technological progress is destroying our lives.

Many acknowledge the positives in the form of medical diagnoses and more flexible approaches to working and study, but there are substantial fears surrounding our culture being dominated by tech companies.

The report also points to increased polarisation of people’s views and populist politics on social and political issues, with technology at least in part to blame. “At the broadest level we see this in the polarisation of those who lean more left versus right, resulting in more engagement with extreme positions on either side but we see the same pattern played out across a variety of hot topic issues across the last few years,” it says.

Pointing to issues such as climate change, vaccination status, mask mandates and gender identification, the report says: “This increasing division feels like a particularly problematic direction for a country like Ireland, which has historically not had strong left/right division politically.”

It suggests that it is “easy to blame social media for the decline in debate [and] to a very large extent that is correct, as it creates these echo chambers [as] complex algorithms only present us with material that they know we will engage with” and it points to Twitter in particular as “a particularly problematic media for engaging with any complex, nuanced or empathetic debate”.

It also mourns the decline in readership of traditional media as it means people are less exposed to ideas and views which may differ from their own.

Concern about inflation and its impact on the economy is widespread, and when presented with the statement “I worry that inflation in wages, bills, prices, etc., will negatively impact the economy” 78 per cent agree, while the number who have noticed the increase in the cost of living has climbed from a pretty high 75 per cent last year to 92 per cent this year.

Climate change, the destruction of the environment and pollution are of concern to 68 per cent of those polled, while income inequality is also a big issue, with 78 per cent of people believing wealthy people “minimise their tax bills using clever accountants” and 75 per cent per cent saying it is too easy for people to manipulate the system to their advantage.

But the biggest issues raised by respondents remain the healthcare system and affordable housing. Outside of this there is an expectation that people will retire later and more people will come to live in Ireland from abroad, both of which are viewed by respondents as negatives for Ireland.

The anxiety and concern about the long term future is coupled with pessimism in our projections for the months ahead. When asked if they feel the global economy will be better, worse or the same over the next 12 months, just over half of respondents were of the view that things are going to be worse.

According to the B&A analysis, the autumn is when things are likely to be most challenging, with the possibility of increased tension between the haves and have-nots, increasing debt, consumers strongly cutting back and putting important financial commitments like buying houses and cars on hold.

It suggests that as we create “the post-Covid ‘normality’ we don’t want to return to our 2019 lives entirely” and says the “pandemic experience has taught us a lot about ourselves [including] what’s really important to us, what we most need to thrive [and] the parts of our lives that weren’t adding any value”.

It is of the view that people will seek “more flexibility with working patterns” and will see the “value of spending more time outdoors, enjoying simple pleasures” and having a greater understanding that “we don’t need to pack our lives quite so full with activities, social events”.

It also notes another interesting trend which suggests that “despite the concerns and publicity around the environment, people are focused on what they perceive to be their most pressing needs which are impacting their households’ living standards. Thus, sustainability needs a reboot, in which we encourage and motivate the right way.”

Progress does not always sit well with all in society. Immigration is still a divisive issue with a third viewing it as negative while two in five view it as positive. Mothers working outside of the home is also divisive with a third viewing it as negative and two in five viewing it as positive.

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast