The older you are, the greater the danger that Covid-19 poses to your health. That general principle has been illustrated starkly in the terrible death toll among older age groups. But the impact of the pandemic ha also felt acutely among young people. By several measures, it has hit them the hardest. As they are more likely to work in lower-paid retail and hospitality jobs, they have taken the brunt of lockdown-linked layoffs. Studies have been interrupted, careers have stalled and social lives have been wearingly circumscribed.
In the annual Sign of the Times survey by Behaviour & Attitudes for The Irish Times in March, nearly 70 per cent of under-25s identified a profound impact on their lives, compared to just 40 per cent of over-65s. The effects on mental health followed a similar pattern, with a massive 65 per cent of under-35s saying the pandemic had hit them badly compared to just 42 per cent of those over the age of 55.
This would be less of a problem if the post-pandemic era promised to restore some equilibrium, or if the young stood to benefit from any national recovery. But nobody who has been paying attention for the past decade thinks that is remotely possible. Young people know it’s not.
The loss of experiences – in education or the workplace, or through travel or relationships – will weigh heavily on a whole generation
Those born since 1980 belong to a trapped generation, pressed between insecure employment, flatlining wages and exorbitant rents that make city living increasingly unattainable. Home ownership is a pipe dream for whole swathes of people. As a report by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) stated plainly on Tuesday, millennials are likely to be the first generation to have lower living standards than their parents.
Still paying the price
These trends have been established for more than a decade; in a very real sense, Ireland’s young adults are still paying the price for a financial and economic crisis that older generations have the luxury of thinking about in the past tense. But the pandemic has made things worse. Many jobs will not return, or at least not for a long time.
When the pandemic ends, young people looking to move out of their parents’ homes will face a rental market where chronic supply shortages have been made even worse by the shutdown in construction. The sales market will be inflated by savings, pushing homes further out of reach for those on lower incomes. Meanwhile, the loss of experiences – in education or the workplace, or through travel or relationships – will weigh heavily on a whole generation.
To reduce all of this to the status of political controversy or “the next big challenge” is to underestimate the dimensions of the crisis – and its potential to reshape politics entirely. But given that generational inequality is now so clearly a feature rather than a bug of Ireland’s social structure, and that that structure does not exist outside of political decision-making, the stakes for Government could scarcely be any greater.