An economic crisis defines a generation. It shapes its experience, influences its ideas and determines its attitude to everything from politics to pantomime (and influences whether or not it believes these can be distinguished from one another).
As we collectively dare to talk about the ‘beginning of the end’ of Ireland’s current crisis, we need to acknowledge the effect it’s had on the generation of young people who might otherwise have entered the Irish workforce.
Previous generations of Irish people that came of age during tough economic times have had contrasting experiences. Those that left in the 1950s made lives elsewhere and mostly never returned, while Ireland’s economy continued to rely on the cash remittances they sent back. Accustomed to this trend, by the 1980s and early 90s, there were those who seemed comfortable enough with the idea of mass emigration. In an October 1987 interview with Newsweek, Foreign Minister Brian Lenihan Snr famously intoned “we can’t all live on a small island.”
But things changed. Many of those who left in the 1980s and early 90s managed to make their way back, driving the economy forward as they did so. Labour activation schemes that came out of the social partnership process helped many of that generation (including this writer) to find their way into the Irish workforce as employment opportunities began to grow.
The happy result was that a generation – feared to be lost – established themselves despite the grim outlook of the 1980s. For a while things looked pretty good. It wasn’t to last.
Once again our young generation is faced with the question of whether to stay or go. Many are opting to leave, taking their chances in Australia, Canada and other countries where there is some prospect of work and/or career development.
A joint study, published last week, found that 70% of Irish people emigrating are in their twenties, 62% of emigrants hold a third-level qualification, and emigration is almost twice as likely to involve people from rural rather than urban areas.
It’s not just those who are facing unemployment that are leaving; 47% of emigrants were in full-time employment before choosing to leave. The report’s co-author Dr Piaras MacEinri said: “It’s a vote of no confidence in the future and in that sense it should be taken seriously.” If the confidence of a whole generation has been so seriously dented, Ireland’s future economic survival will be hugely compromised.
Those who decide to stay, and who are struggling to survive on social welfare or sporadic bursts of short term employment, will be greatly compromised as employment once again begins to grow. They are more likely to be passed over in favour of younger school leavers and graduates that come behind them.
Consequently, trade unions and other civil society groups need to explore and advocate for policies that will prevent that generation being lost. If the end of this long period of economic crisis is indeed in sight, we need to prepare to create opportunities for the generation that came of age as the crisis hit. All our futures depend upon it.