Indebted generation must find their voice


The negative-equity generation should be out on the streets – but it’s hard to embrace collective power when you’ve grown up an ardent individualist

BEFORE WE can answer the question that outsiders keep asking about Ireland – why is there so little protest? – we have to ask a more basic question. Why do people protest? The answer, as a crude generalisation, is thwarted expectations.

People at the bottom of the heap seldom spark revolutions. They have learned to expect little and they put their energies into survival. It is those who have expectations that cannot be fulfilled who tend to revolt against the existing order.

Thus, in the Middle East, it is not the desperately poor who are in revolt. It is the educated young people who have just enough privilege to believe they are entitled to a better life. They expect something – a career, freedom, self-respect – that corrupt dictatorships cannot deliver.

We’ve seen this phenomenon in Ireland, too. The generation that created the State was an aspirant lower middle-class, products of the Christian Brothers and the convent schools. Its leaders were not, by and large, drawn from the large pool of the destitute, but from those who were self-confident enough to have expectations (economic and psychological) that the British-dominated state could not meet. Something similar happened in Northern Ireland in the 1960s – the system reaped the consequences of educating a generation of young Catholics to expect opportunity and equality.

This is what’s fascinating about the dog that is not barking in Ireland, the negative-equity generation. It is not entirely true to contend that this generation is suffering most from the collapse of the boom. In demographic terms, it is always children and the elderly who bear the brunt of poverty. In economic terms, the people who suffer most are not a generation but a class – the poor. But most of those who suffer poverty are ground down by it.

They are used to having their dignity insulted, to being reminded that they don’t count, to having services they depend on destroyed at the stroke of a pen. They have learned to expect little better.

If ever, though, there was a classic case of thwarted expectations, it’s the negative-equity generation. No generation in the history of Ireland grew up with such high hopes. Those of my age, raised in the 1960s and 1970s, had an infusion of optimism, but it was nothing like the heady draught of the 1990s. There was enough grimness around – the Troubles, the overweening power of the church, the persistence of poverty – to temper our expectations.

But the next generation experienced almost unlimited hope. Not alone were things visibly and rapidly getting better but most of what you saw or read told you that this was a permanent state of affairs. The only way was up.

I remember remarking several times during the boom years that all hell would break loose when this thing crashed. How could a generation with such high expectations cope with a sudden reversal of fortune? And yet, by and large, the thwarted generation has so far kept its rage and despair firmly behind the front doors of its massively overpriced houses.

Why? Because of ideology. David McWilliams memorably christened the 30- and 40-somethings “the pope’s children”. But it might be more useful to call them the children of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

At the height of the boom, we had 1.3 million people who were born between 1962 and 1981. They came to adulthood between the early 1980s and the millennium. Their consciousness was formed, in other words, by the dismantling of the postwar social democratic consensus and the rise of neo-liberalism.

The “common sense” of that era contained a number of underlying attitudes. The toxicity of many of them is now obvious: the idea that risk is always preferable to security; the notion that debt is not debt but “credit”; the belief that people at the top earn vast sums because they are extraordinarily talented. Less obvious, though, is the attitude to collective social action.

For Thatcher’s children, it was obvious that trade unions were an anachronism. Protests were a hippy-dippy indulgence. Politics was showbiz for ugly people, of interest only to bores and crooks.

Power was personal, not collective. You got what you wanted by wanting it enough. If you were poor, or exploited, or powerless, it was because you weren’t passionate enough about following your dream.

It’s not easy to get yourself out of this way of thinking. You have to engage with the notion that the social democratic consensus destroyed by Thatcher might not have been so bad after all. You have to get your head around the idea that, when things turn bad, you don’t have much power as an individual. You have to wonder whether the 1960s and its culture of protest were entirely ridiculous.

The negative-equity generation can’t reproduce the forms of collective organisation that worked for previous generations. But if it doesn’t want to be drowned in a sea of debt, it will have to find its own voice. That means realising that there are no private solutions to a public crisis and that, when times are tough, passive people get walked on.

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