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Una Mullally: Young people will take their revenge at the polls

The young have had a devastating pandemic. Politicians will ignore this at their peril

Youth unemployment in Ireland now stands at 59.2 per cent, according to the Central Statistics Office (CSO). Young women in this cohort (15-24-year-olds) are faring even worse, and their rate of unemployment now stands at 64 per cent. In January 2020, the rate of unemployment in this cohort was 11.8 per cent. Whichever way you slice it, this increase is terrible.

There is an assumption that this number will plummet “when things open back up”. Of course the lockdown and mandated closure of businesses is having a massive impact, and is the main contributing factor to this explosion in youth unemployment. A lot of those businesses will “come back”, but staffing levels may be different. A lot of the businesses won’t come back. We’ve already seen many independent businesses and larger big-brand retailers go to the wall. Those jobs are gone.

But the deeper pain for many is what has been lost in the meantime. All of these unemployed young people have been put on the back-burner. Many are struggling financially, their pandemic unemployment payment may have been cut – or “tapered”, as Fine Gael likes to call it – and if they don’t qualify for the payment they can only access the lower band of social welfare if they’re living at home.

The arbitrary divide between those who have been saving chunks of their salaries and those scraping by on social welfare will be one of the largest political forces in Ireland for the foreseeable future, especially if it is not recognised and addressed. Some politicians clearly understand this, as evidenced by the Green Party’s Joe O’Brien, Minister of State with responsibility for social inclusion, who recently wrote to Minister for Finance Paschal Donohue and Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath, advocating for a one-off solidarity tax on high earners and firms who breezed through the pandemic financially and accumulated wealth.

Eat the rich

In the last general election, an under-reported and less-noticed – but perhaps more important – trend than the Sinn Féin surge was the #VoteLeftTransferLeft movement. If the inequality the pandemic has exacerbated and further entrenched isn’t tackled, the next time an election comes around, the temperature will be raised to eat-the-rich levels of heat.

Teenagers and people in their early twenties have suffered so much in the pandemic. Their education has been completely disrupted. They are over-represented in public-facing jobs across retail and hospitality. Their living arrangements often do not lend themselves to “working from home”. Their social lives have been destroyed. Already denied independence by the housing and rental crisis, unemployment robs people of the chance to save. For those a little older than them, 25-39-year-olds, home ownership has dropped to 12 per cent. It was 22 per cent in 2011. House prices are going up, and there will be plenty of cash-rich buyers whose screen-based jobs kept going, leapfrogging those without familial wealth or savings. That co-living developments are still going ahead is tantamount to gaslighting for young people looking to rent somewhere affordable, never mind buy.

And yet, these young people have massive political influence, if they use it. Young women in particular in Ireland have led and influenced political engagement and political change in this country in recent years, and are grossly underestimated as a force. The emergence of issues, not tribes or legacy, as the motivation behind contemporary voter behaviour is difficult for centrist and neoliberal political forces to grapple with when their ideologies are so out of step with the modern Irish disposition, vision for society, and value system.

Sensational stats

When issues are engaged with, young people come out. When we examine the politicisation of young women in Ireland, we see sensational statistics in terms of turnout when issues relevant to their interests are to the fore. The increase in turnout among young women aged 18-24 between the 2016 general election and the vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment was 94 per cent.

Whatever political force connects with, understands and represents young people – much more politicised now than a decade ago considering the crash and ensuing social revolution in Ireland – will win the day. Mass emigration, so often a pressure value Ireland has utilised in the past to drain the dole queues and prevent social unrest, will be complicated by travel restrictions. The issues that young people face most acutely – the housing crisis, a mental health crisis and lack of services, the cost of living, access to education, quality of life, corporate gentrification, work-life balance, wage inequity, lack of job security, poor public amenities, the idea of creating a place people don’t want to leave, and the future of the island existentially in terms of unity – are also our biggest issues as a society, regardless of age demographics.

On the other side of this, whatever that looks like, people will want the stress of this era to be gone. People will want a reprieve. They will want a good time. They will want something profound back that has been put on hold for so many: a future that brims with potential. If that is not catered for, if the day-to-day stresses keep dropping in, the dejection and strain will turn to resistance and anger, particularly among young people. The political ramifications are clear.