Ronan Lyons | Personal Website
Ronan Lyons | Personal Website

Is Ireland a country for young people?

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 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.

Thank you.

  • Cathyby ,

    Hi Ronan,

    I respectfully disagree. If you look at the way the country is set up, it certainly doesn’t look like it’s *for* young people.

    Our maternity services are stretched. Unless you have a medical card you have to pay for medical care for your child. It’s difficult to get your child’s teeth seen, unless it’s an emergency. School classes are as large as they were in my youth, still likely to be held in refabs. New school buildings are built to basic specs; they don’t even put plaster on the walls. Schools have been free to exclude, to encourage people to go elsewhere where there is “more support”, to have expensive uniforms and booklists.

    Social services are over burdened and have been for years. Neglected children, children being abused are not receiving the intervention they need.

    It’s pretty clear Ireland is not “for” children. Maybe you are excluding children from your definition of young people. But can you exclude the majority of their past life for a 20 year old?

    I also think your assumptions of what a young person will be doing is very restricted. Not all young people go to university. In the last decade many were absorbed into the construction trade. This was allowed to balloon – now it’s gone those young people are left high and dry. All the government rhetoric speaks about the “knowledge economy” – what about sustainable long-term work for the non-university graduate?

    Even in terms of where they live, young people are not a priority. The state supports house-owning instead of renting. Why not focus on the latter? It’s how the majority of young people live.

    I am left with the impression that Ireland has little interest in children or young people as a class. This despite them being a huge proportion of the population. Is it surprising if the young people reciprocate that lack of interest?

    As for how lucky “Charlton’s Children” (nice phrase!) will be, that majorly depends on our economy into the future. They may just find themselves echoing Gen-X and moving abroad, without a Celtic Tiger prompting a return. If this happens, any suggestion Ireland is a country for young people sounds hollow indeed.

    • John Mack ,

      Cathyby makes some excellent points, and the years ahead of a shrinking economy and shrinking revenues on top of increased debts means more deterioration of social services, specially for children.

      What is most helpful about her comment is that it envisions a young person as people who are single and rooming with friends (renters) or family starters who need privacy and room for everything a growing family implies. Young parents too will be renting, for a while at least, possibly over a lifetime.

      Ireland could indeed distinguish itself with a policy favoring renters. Call it a “Future Homeowners Assistance Act” if you will, but give breaks to renters comparable to those given to homeowners, but scaled by the number of people (spouse and kids and maybe parents) in the household. Whatever else such a policy would accomplish, it would put more savings or more spending money into the economy.

      Plus, and here the Irish are supersensitive, it would attract international interest, most of it quite positive, if the legislation is properly drafted.

      And yes, please get over Civil War politics. My relatives in Ireland have been turned off to any participation in politics since the Civil War and the dreary dragging along of “sacred” myths and resentments from that uncivil event. And please stop fashioning the Irish fight for independence and the politics that derive from it as some kind of secular Mass, a never ending unbloody but quite dysfunctional reenactment of a nation’s bloody sacrifice. Strip the damn story of its overblown sacredness. And, please both my parents and their families were quite active in the War of Independence, but refused to participate in the Civil War. They moved on.

      By the way, in the US now professors now use clicker to get instant feedback from students. At regular intervals students click on a handheld device to indicate that they got or did not get it, with the professor seeing an instant breakdown of statistics on the responses. This is the kind of feedback that young people what to give to politicians – and economists – instead of having what they are thinking being filtered through Ireland’s propagandaistic media.

      Another way to engage young people, and this is something that you and your colleagues can do without the government’s permission. Turn Ireland’s various problems into case studies for business, economics and public policy students and other students as appropriate (health administrators, for instance). It would be good for professors from different disciplines to collaborate on teaching such case studies. Lectures on civics (do they even occur?) will have some meaning if student teams have to analyze and propose solutions to policy and budget problems. For these case studies to work, the real cost structures of government services would have to be transparently revealed. But that could take time and should not prevent getting the cases written up and the courses going.

      • John Mack ,

        I forgot to commend you on that excellent book you mention, which I am now reading.

        Ireland really needs to get ready for the very bad results that climate change/global warming will bring – severe winters, among others, and hotter summers. The Gulf Stream benefits to Ireland have begun to diminish and will rapidly deteriorate as more Arctic Ice melts. The global warming models have predicted all this for many, many years.

        • Richard ,

          Interesting but naive, we have just witnessed the msot significant wealth transfer from one demographic group to another in a 10 year period of an y European state outside a large world war. This is no country for the young, its an immature, pseudo liberal, nest of incompetence smug in its own self importance having given the Kennedy’s to the world. The baby boomer generation were ill educated, insecure, irresponsible and with a genetic pre disposition to depression and alcohol abuse.

          The spring lamb bounce in your step belies your youth and success and is the most important part of youth – hope

          I’m sore Ronan but stick to the statistics

          • Sam ,

            Hi Ronan,

            Interesting perspective, but I’m not sure you can say with much confidence that ‘Charlton’s Children’ are the luckiest generation Ireland has had, when they are, well, still children. Firstly, just because there’s more doom and gloom about doesn’t mean they’re going to make good decisions or be more pragmatic when choosing a college course. Sure they might be a bit more than people my age were (I’m 24), but at the same time, Arts and Social Science students have always endured ‘What are you going to do with that?’ type sneering from science-y types (I know plenty of Science graduates my age who are unemployed, and I have a job I love, but that’s tangential.) Secondly, who knows what challenges the future will throw at them, we’ve a mountain of debt, peak oil has likely been passed, the eurozone could disintegrate, I could go on.
            It’s a bit like saying Manchester United’s U-18 team is the most talented the Premiership has ever seen.
            ““Charlton’s Children” are lucky because they are the first generation to see Ireland for what it is and pick their future accordingly”
            But they can’t see Ireland for what it will be in 5, 10 or 20 years, so I’m not sure how this matters. You can’t act like it’s a given that Ireland will always have great FDI jobs-the composition of the economy will change over time, and the longer we expect people to study for without getting paid increases the chance of there being a skills mismatch.

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