The school children and undergraduates of the Celtic Tiger era emerged into a world of high rents, low-paid jobs, and emigration. They can’t buy houses and don’t have pensions. But they have voted for change, says Joyce Fegan.
I WAS surprised, when I woke up in the middle of the night on November 9, 2016, to see the result of the US presidential election.
“Could this be fake news?” I said to the screen displaying my Twitter feed at about 4am. No answer was forthcoming.
Over the next four years, some answers became apparent.
America was far from a post-racial utopia.
America was far from respecting of genders.
America was far from a welcoming refuge for the world’s ‘huddled masses.’
Many people in America work many jobs to make ends meet, a fact that is never borne out in their high employment figures.
Where was the country’s social safety net? In March 2017, on a blisteringly cold Chicago morning, I came across a middle-aged woman begging on the city’s Michigan Mile. She had no hair.
Her brown cardboard sign referred to healthcare costs and to chemotherapy.
“Thank god I live in Ireland,” I said to myself, “where we have a social safety net and care about our people.”
But last weekend, when our election results came in with Sinn Féin having won a seismic number of seats, I was not surprised.
Anyone who had been paying even slight attention to Irish life over the last number of years likely wasn’t too surprised, either.
We talk a lot about generations and the buzzwords to describe them. But there is one generation that never got a buzzword: the generation that never got to experience the economic prosperity of the Celtic Tiger, nor even its corollary, negative equity.
That generation witnessed the Celtic Tiger from school or college and then graduated out into the abyss of unemployment and emigration. Their careers and wages stagnated. They became familiar with things like Job Bridge. They’d never dare get involved in things like unions or collective bargaining.
‘Just so lucky to have a job’ was, and is, the unconscious mantra.
This generation then moved into the renting world. Things were OK for a while.
Then, the breaks were put on the housing market.
The great economic advice of the day was to borrow the 20% deposit from your parents.
This sage advice might help a small few circumnavigate the Central Bank’s rules, but, for the most, that’s not the Ireland they lived in, no matter how early they got out of bed in the morning.
Then, the rents went up, as fewer and fewer people could afford to become a homeowner.
We could call them GenR: Generation R, for rent. Or GenS: Generation S, for stuck?
Supplementary luxuries, or safety nets, like pensions and health insurance, flew by the wayside.
With 45% of the population able to afford private health insurance, how many young renters hold it?
In 2017, 221,000 of our 18- to 29-year-olds held private insurance. In 2009, 310,000 of them did.
What about pensions?
Just one in six (16.3%) workers aged 20 to 24 has a pension.
Just four out of every 10 (41.5%) workers aged 25 to 34 years have one.
But, 70.9% of 45 to 54-year-olds have pension coverage — but they’re not part of GenS.
Were we then really that surprised when almost 32% of our 18- to 24-year-olds voted for the change offered in the 2020 general election, a message supplied by Sinn Féin?
For 25- to 34-year-olds, 31.7% of them voted for this change, too.
Meanwhile, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, in his first TV interview after the election, brought up Brexit.
It is unlikely that Brexit matters much to a young person sharing a house with five strangers, and who gets up at 6am to sit in M50 traffic, while, on the odd day, the worry over their pension or lack of health cover might sneak in from the recesses of their mind to the forefront.
Brexit is important: it has implications for our trade, jobs, and borders.
But if it was on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it would be alongside self-actualisation on the pyramid, at least for people with real worries.
But it’s about listening isn’t it? Not just silly memes, on WhatsApp, which you’ve been receiving and forwarding since first thing Sunday morning.
We can share all the memes we like, but what message was this generation sending us?
It’s not simply about ‘want change, vote Sinn Féin.’
Simple political messaging is a far cry from complex policy-making for an entire country, society, and economy.
We really need to tune into that generation.
What did they say at the ballot box?
Do we listen?
Do we act?
Or do we continue on as normal?
They told us that they care, that they vote, and that they value democracy as a way to bring about the changes they need.
They want housing solutions and access to healthcare. They care about the climate and they need to be able to afford the cost of living, too.
Now is not the time to talk back: it’s the time to listen.
There are different experiences of Ireland. The people told us so in the ballot box.
The question is, can we listen now, again? Not to the political parties’ messaging, but to the democratically expressed message from the people of Ireland?