THIS month she leaves for Bangkok. My young friend, 30 years old and fed up waiting for a permanent job as a primary school teacher, has decided to see the world instead of settling down in Ireland.
“If not now, when?” she asks. She’s still young and she’s always wanted to travel. But I’m left asking a whole different set of questions, like: “How can we be so stupid that we’re letting this young Wexford woman slip through our fingers?” Montessori-trained in the UK, she came home to do her Irish primary teaching qualification. She has vast experience with special needs, having worked in schools specialising in autism and in dyslexia. My autistic son Tom had the time of his life when she came to us to give him his “July Provision” and since then she’s volunteered to take him out quite often. She once cycled him five miles to Dún Laoghaire, bought him a gigantic ice-cream, and cycled him home again.
Tom will miss her but she expects to come back when the job prospects are better. However my mammy’s mind is thinking she might meet someone. She might end up with a Thai family or a wonderful job in Oz. There may be downsides for my young friend, like the absence of any pathway to a pension. But the bigger loss will be sustained by this society if we lose this young teacher for good and for all.
Newly elected Fianna Fáil TD for Mayo, Lisa Chambers (29), spoke out strongly on RTÉ radio at the weekend about the crisis affecting her generation. At her age, she said, her parents had a house, had a family, whereas her peers were postponing settling down by up to 10 years.
“It’s going to have an impact on society,” she said. “And nobody is talking about that stuff. No one at national level is talking about the problems facing my generation.”
Well, Lisa is. And that’s important because as a society we can’t afford to designate the 20s as a second decade of adolescence. If we do, our kids will never build any security for their old age and they will not be able to help fund ours. They may never have the families they want and we will have no grandchildren or none we get to see.
The young are being consigned to Limbo and the only way out, frequently, is to go away. Which will be another Limbo for many. The Irish sociologist Mary Corcoran did a fascinating study of young Irish emigrants in the US in the 1980s and found them avoiding relationships which might make them settle down.
Certainly that was the case for both my husband and I when we emigrated in the late 1980s. We both came home on the false hope of jobs and faced a long period of unemployment and precarious work.
We were forced into self-employment, which has led to very interesting lives. But we were in the educationally privileged group which tends to suffer fewer impacts from periods of unemployment when young.
We won the lottery of late parenthood. And youth unemployment in the 1980s in Ireland was less damaging than it is today because renting was cheap and it was feasible to have a sort of lifestyle on the dole.
UK sociologists Bell and Blanchflower find evidence of lifelong “scarring” for every month people are unemployed when they are between the ages of 17 and 25; 35 years later there are impacts both on wages and on general happiness. But the burning issue is that we can’t afford to throw away the resource of our young adults. Look at the statistics: Youth unemployment at more than 21% as opposed to 6% in 2000; 39% of those earning the minimum wage are under 29 and there has been a massive increase in the number of young people in temporary employment.
More than 40% of those between 18 and 29 years old live with their parents, a statistic which is slightly below the EU average, possibly because we emigrate in such numbers and employment opportunities are poorly dispersed.
It’s fine to live with your parents. But a place to call your own, a relationship, a baby on the way, should be the reasonable expectations of a 25-year-old in a developed society.
We have a long tradition in Ireland of denying adulthood to our young people to preserve the status quo for the middle-aged.
The TDs in the 32nd Dáil meeting for the first time today need only walk a few paces to the Gaiety Theatre to see Garry Hynes’s amazing production of John B Keane’s 1959 classic, Big Maggie, which ends with the terrifying matriarch sending her adult children away and banging the door shut.
It might force the recognition that destroying our young people is a long-held tradition worth dumping. This will take an imaginative leap for many because there only five TDs under 30 among them, even though the under 30s represent 40% of the population. You wonder how the young are to “take charge of change”, in the words of President Higgins at the 1916 flags ceremony this week in Croke Park, if they have hardly any political representation.
The National Youth Council of Ireland found only 43% of 18 to 21-year-olds registered to vote in the last local and European elections. Votes for 16-year-old is an idea worth trying to help young people make the connection with politics.
The NYCI’s James Doorley points to the success of gender quotas in increasing the number of women in the Dáil and wonders if such a “blunt instrument” could be used to increase the number of young TDs. But if we institute quotas for every section of the community we won’t have democracy.
For the moment the spotlight is shining brightly on the next government’s commitment to the young.
The “Youth Guarantee” scheme, leveraging EU funding to provide unemployed young people with a job or training place, is all very well but we should be aiming for a “Youth Guarantee” for every young Irish person.
The new government must “youth proof” every single policy in case it makes the middle-aged richer at the expense of the young, even if this means unpopular moves such as cutting public service pensions to create more jobs, higher taxes on higher wages and the reversal of Fine Gael’s pledge to increase the inheritance threshold on a family home.
Young people have been forced through a General Election campaign featuring elderly men climbing every lamp-post in their constituencies to get Dáil seats they’ve already worn out.
If the 32rd Dáil is yet another case of what Cork South Central Green candidate Lorna Bogue called “middle-aged men pissing my life away” they will pack their talent, their energy as well as their passports and leave us in a doomed country to fight it out among ourselves.
As a society we can’t afford to designate the 20s as a second decade of adolescence