Last week, I was privileged to be invited to speak at the MacGill Summer School, which was celebrating its 30th anniversary. Throughout the week, there were various sessions, on health, education, the economy naturally and indeed political reform. With so many former and current journalists, ministers and high-ranking civil servants, the formal and informal proceedings are strongly recommended!
One of the final sessions of the week was based around the question “Is Ireland a country for young men and women?”. Three “young-ish” people (the School’s description of us, not mine!) were asked to give their thoughts, including Andrea Pappin and Ruairi McKiernan of spunout.ie. Here are my thoughts – if you don’t like the jokes, or if a few of the passages seem familiar, go easy on me, I’m not used to reading out a speech!
One of the challenges I had when thinking about today’s topic was to define – to myself even if to no-one else – what exactly “a young person” is these days. The barstool definition is that you’re old if when someone describes you as young, you take is as a compliment, rather than bristle. I’m not sure, though, that for as prestigious a platform as this, that definition will pass muster, particularly as by that definition I’m definitely old!
I think it’s easier for an economist such as myself to seek refuge in numbers instead. The median age in Ireland is 35, so I guess it’s fair to describe those under that age as “young men and women”. And today, I hope to discuss three things in relation to that younger generation in Ireland:
- firstly, to give my own perspective on the questions posed for today’s theme, in particular what we mean by participation
- secondly, to outline some of the ideas for the future that young people in Ireland have put forward in these challenging times
- and lastly, to explain why I believe that those born in the 1990s, will yet emerge as Ireland’s luckiest generation
Naturally, as I speak, I’m doing so from my own perspective and do not claim for a minute to speak on behalf of all people born after 1975.
What is participation?
In fact, that’s one of the first points I’d like to make. One of the scene-setting questions for today’s session asks: “What is their view of politics and political institutions and why do they not participate more?”
This is a somewhat loaded question – in two ways. Firstly, do all young people really have the same view of politics in Ireland? Would we say that of women or migrants or the elderly? As long as we talk about young people as some “other” out there, as the object of discussion, it’s going to be very difficult to invite them properly to join that discussion.
And secondly, do we really know that young people do not participate?
Certainly, people have long fretted about how few young people vote in elections. But is it really any surprise that young people haven’t voted in large numbers in recent elections? Civil War politics is hardly a turn-on for a generation that barely remembers the tough times of the 1980s, let alone the 1920s. To young people born in Ireland, who regard themselves as young Europeans – indeed global citizens – there hasn’t – at least until recently – been an awful lot to get particularly excited about when it comes to national politics.
And it’s not just the content, it’s the context. 16/17-year-olds aren’t allowed to vote, while the policy of having elections on a Friday means that 18-22 year old students find it difficult to vote.
The other night, I went to see Roger Daltrey, lead singer of the Who, in Marlay Park. Sure enough, he performed one of their biggest hits from nearly half a century ago, “Talkin Bout My Generation”. And it struck me as he sang, that his generation, born in the 1940s and 1950s, have gone from brash upstarts to holding the reins. Many young people today watching him sing would not see an anthem for a social revolution that they could happily sign up for. They see a man hitting retirement age singing about the past.
To me, the system as it’s set up this is a bit like this. We’ve a generation in control, with a system set up to their tastes and often to their benefit. And that generation is puzzled why their children are not particularly bothered about joining in.
Participation is not a single-issue subject, “vote or else”, nor is it a static concept in a rapidly changing society. I think the key to understanding participation in the modern world is to remember that there are hundreds of different ways of doing it. And as fashions change, so do ways of joining in.
In fact, I’ve something of a confession to make. At every session I’ve been at this week, even as session chairs have been urging us to turn off our phones, I’ve been playing away with mine. What I’ve been doing, though, is sharing what’s been happening here at MacGill with hundreds of people around the country via Twitter. That’s one example of what participation looks like these days – for me and others like me, it seems alien to go to something interesting and not share it with the world.
This leads me on to another question in the blurb for this morning’s session, whether young people get more fulfilment from the web than from the environment in which they live and work. To me, this misses the point – the web is not some alternative to the environment I live and work in, it’s a fundamental part of it.
Most of my work and research is effectively online. In 2007, I got my job via the web. The vast majority of those under 35 work, live, chat, buy music and books, make friends, find new jobs, new places to live, even husbands and wives all online. Participation is different now.
Ideas for the Future
So when people ask “Do young people care anymore?”, my argument is yes – they just show it in different ways. What I’d like to do now is take a few moments to go through some of the interesting ideas that those under-40 have put forward into the public domain, as Ireland faces a range of challenges and crises.
Earlier this year, a book was published, “Next Generation Ireland”. It contained nine chapters, each written by emerging experts in a particular policy area. And each of which is designed to answer in a non-technical way the question “What Now?”. The book covers nine different areas of policy, from political reform and the public service to climate change and Ireland’s diaspora. I was lucky enough to edit the book, together with Ed Burke. And the dark secret of these books is that you learn a lot more by editing it than any reader ever will!
For reasons of time, I can only go through a couple, but the general point I’d like to make is that there are a lot of smart young people out there with excellent suggestions for how Ireland can get itself out of this mess – we just have to listen to them. The “Next Generation Ireland” book is hopefully a useful tool for doing just that.
Reading the chapter on climate change, for example, I learnt that Ireland can never become environmentally sustainable without sorting out each of the following three things: our farms, our houses and our cars. This can’t be done at the stroke of a pen but Joe Curtin in his chapter outlines the steps that can be taken now to do just that.
Similarly, on political reform, as has been stressed on a number of occasions this week, we need to be wary of consensus. The political system needs to be set up to foster dissent in the design stage, so what emerges as the end product is robust. Eoin O’Malley suggests a few ways this can be done, for example vastly reducing the size of the Cabinet, establishing a Civil Service Department of the Opposition or even just changing the role of the Ceann Comhairle.
Lastly, on our public services, we need to move away from a fallacy that lies at the heart of how public money is spent these days: that public services incur costs but no benefits. In effect, we need to move away from an accounting model where public services have costs, to an economic model that attempts to understand the benefits as well as the costs, and thus enables us to make better decisions about how taxpayer money is allocated.
Ireland’s Luckiest Generation
I’m aware, though, that time is tight and I haven’t yet addressed the central question of this session: “Is Ireland a country for young people?”
The theme of this year’s school is ultimately about what the Ireland of 2016 will look like. So why don’t we consider the graduating class of 2016? To steal a trick from David McWilliams, let’s call these 16 and 17 year-olds, who were born in the early 1990s, “Charlton’s Children”.
Odd as this may sound to them in particular, but in my opinion “Charlton’s Children” are perhaps the luckiest generation Ireland has ever had. It’s not difficult to see that they are definitely luckier than those in their 20s now. Ireland’s 20-somethings picked their college courses at the boom turned to bubble, often without reference to the underlying skills it would give them. This happened because we’d become victims of our own success: there was a general feeling that there would be jobs for graduates out the other side, no matter what their degree. As we all know now, though, jobs are never guaranteed and they have been graduating into one of the toughest labour markets Ireland has ever seen. Even more worryingly, many have qualifications for sectors that are in serious contraction.
I would also argue that Charlton’s Children are luckier than Ireland’s 30-somethings. Sure, those born in the 1970s found it easy to get jobs when they finished their education. However, shortly after that, they were also showered with cheap credit. Unsurprisingly, with house prices now down by half in five years, this cohort forms the bulk of hundreds of thousands of people around the country who are in negative equity, often €100,000 or more. If you gave them the chance to start all over again, there wouldn’t be too many who’d refuse.
And I hope it’s not too contentious to say that Charlton’s Children are luckier than those born before the 1970s, who typically had to scatter around the world to find livelihoods. These generations didn’t have the same opportunities, and the majority didn’t go to college. As I mentioned before, I love my stats, and so I think one or two are in order here. In particular, I’d like to compare Ireland’s 20-somethings with Ireland’s 60-somethings.
Of 65-69 year-olds, only two in five made it to the Leaving Cert, compared to four out of five of their German pen-pals. By contrast, Ireland’s 20-24 year-olds are the best qualified in Europe –just one in ten does not have their Leaving Cert, about half the EU-15 rate. Not only that, and notwithstanding the very good points made on Wednesday night about our education system, our statistics in relation to access to higher education are equally impressive. In Ireland, the proportion of people under 30 with higher education is close to a half, the highest in the EU.
“Charlton’s Children” are lucky because they are the first generation to see Ireland for what it is and pick their future accordingly: a small open economy completely dependent on its ability to sell its talent on international markets, but with plenty of opportunity for those with the right skills. Yes, there is lots of unemployment in Ireland. Yes, there is a lot of debt and, as we’ve heard this week, for the next few years, there will be tough Budget after tough Budget.
But Ireland’s teenagers can sidestep all that, because they have a clean slate. Let’s not forget that Ireland attracts more FDI jobs per capita than any other country in the world. The companies that come here often can’t find all the skills they need in Ireland and so bring other workers here. People in Ireland are unemployed not because there is no demand for workers, but because there is demand for workers with skills a, b and c, while those unemployed have skills x, y and z.
“What about all the debt we’re leaving them?”, people will say. On that, we really need some perspective. I estimate that by the time we balance our books, the monthly income tax bill per household will be about €1,300. Of that, €800 will be social welfare, health and education spending. Just €200 will be debt repayments, and €50 of that predates the crisis, while the bill for the banking bailout will be about another €50 per household, per month. It’s very expensive deposit insurance, certainly. But it’s not the be-all-and-end-all.
I should definitely wrap up by this stage.
What I’ve tried to show today is that first we shouldn’t really be thinking of young people as some “other”, outside the conversation. Participation is like fashion – sure, the way younger people do it seems odd to older people, but you guys seem pretty weird to us too, if you don’t mind me saying so!
Secondly, I think that if we stop and listen, we’ll see that Ireland’s under-40s are producing some excellent contributions to public discourse. Hopefully, what Ed, I and the other authors have done in “Next Generation Ireland” is a part of that. The key thing is that we need to be prepared to listen.
And lastly, is Ireland a country for young people? My point today was that, as long as we keep a bit of perspective, I think to me it’s pretty clear that Ireland is a country for young people.
I’ll leave you with one more stat. A month ago, we found out that our lead had grown at the top of a very important league table, the one measuring birth rates. Ireland’s birth rate is 17 per 1,000, compared to less than 13 in 2nd-placed UK and France and more than twice the rate in Germany, which trails in last. So I would say that Ireland is not just a country FOR young people: Ireland is a country OF young people.