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Holly Cairns says our generation is worse off than parents, but what about the huge benefits from modernity?

Finn McRedmond: Life isn’t particularly easy for young people in Ireland, but the way we measure our wealth extends beyond immediate material factors

Holly Cairns – in her First Dáil contribution as leader of the Social Democrats – said “I’m a member of the first ever generation who will be worse off than my parents”. It was an astute jump on to the bandwagon. That soundbite has been swirling around for some time now, and this gloomy disposition is in vogue.

“Millennials are the new lost generation,” bemoans The Atlantic. “It’s all bust and no boom for Generation Z”, explains the Times. The Washington Post described Cairns’s cohort as “the unluckiest generation in history”. Greta Thunberg – environmental activist and beacon of doom-mongering – said just last month that “the world is getting more and more grim every day”. We are encouraged to believe that the set of circumstances the youngest in this economy face are freshly and uniquely unbearable. The contemporary world, so we are told, is in a long and slow period of managed decline.

Woe betide anyone who suggests that we might lighten up. This self-pitying gloominess is not just overdone, it is straightforwardly defeatist. Even if Cairns is right, and our financial circumstances are worse than our parents, the young in society have still reaped huge benefits from modernity. This remains inconveniently true no matter how unfashionable it may be to suggest in a climate of rampant inflation, a housing crisis and the fallout of a pandemic.

Life isn’t particularly easy for young people in Ireland. The swath of émigrés to London or the Antipodes are evidence enough of that fact. The rental market is hostile and unforgiving. Millennials and Gen Z are less likely to own a home than our predecessors – incomes are pilfered away each month for a landlord’s benefit. Even those fortunate enough to buy a house face staggering prices, out of sync with wage growth. So, yes, perhaps in this immediate and narrowly-defined sense the young are worse off. No one would deny the severity of this situation.


But the way we measure our wealth – as individuals and as a group – extends beyond immediate material factors. Social progress has generated a much fairer world. Technological advance has improved lifestyles day-to-day in ways once considered unimaginable. When Cairns says her generation is “worse off” than her parents’, it seems a conceit convincingly designed to ignore all the other ways that we can be rich.

We are products of a world that has accepted the tenets of second-wave feminism. Women can work, most can work and have children.

Fifty years ago we didn’t even have the terminology to describe sexual harassment let alone the impetus or capability to fight against it. Now thanks to the likes of #MeToo huge progress has been made to improve the climate of sexual violence.

And Cairns should not forget that she too is the beneficiary of a far more equal Ireland – one that is comfortable elevating young women to high political position. It was not always so.

It extends far beyond this. The world is not perfect but it is less racist and less homophobic than it has been even in recent decades. It may be immediately expedient to understate this progress – it certainly makes for a fashionable political point – but acknowledging all the ways the world has improved is crucial to keeping us on that path.

Thanks to the democratising force of low-cost airlines we can travel more cheaply than ever before. Access to the world beyond our noses is an advantage we should not take lightly. In Dublin an entirely new industry has settled in by Grand Canal Dock, dragging Ireland to the front lines of technological advance and to the centre of Europe. Unemployment levels are lower than our parents ever contended with. We have RNA vaccines and smartphones. There are myriad ways to be well off. These are certainly among them.

In fact in the long swooping arc of history most people would probably elect to live now – probably the best time to be alive in human history. Maybe we could ascribe that to soaring global literacy rates; or huge steps made in girls’ education; the decline of excruciating and fatal diseases; how we managed to change the tide on AIDS.

All of these things might feel a little distant to a generation anxious about home ownership. But it shouldn’t. The current spectre of pessimism – that everything is getting worse, that we are condemned to a life less fulfilling than our parents – simply fails to notice the tangible progress of recent years. This mindset not only understates how far we have come, but it deters us from the very reasonable belief that things will continue to get better. Optimism is deterministic.

Nevertheless, looking to the past is all too tempting. But when we feel aggrieved that we are worse off than our parents – true, in a narrow sense – we are pining for a halcyon past that was likely not nearly as desirable as it seems.