Divided generations - Reports ring the warning bells loudly

The paper published by the Economic and Social Research Institute yesterday makes for depressing, challenging reading.

It would be foolish if not dangerous to ignore it and not to consider how the failed — and failing — society it describes can be remade quickly.

The grimness and lack of opportunity faced by so many young people and some not so young, demands a response with a force and urgency usually unknown in our public affairs.

To put it in context, the paper’s author, Prof Petra Gerlach-Kristen, described the impact of the economic crash on people younger than 45 as “large, both by international standards and in a historical comparison”.

As any retired grandparent turned baby-minder because their working children struggle to pay spectacular childcare charges will confirm, the impact of the economic collapse has not been spread evenly across the generations. If they occasionally dip into their savings, as so many do, to help their adult children that confirmation will be emphatic. If their adult children have returned to the nest, as so many have, that confirmation will be of a different order altogether.

Though it is little more than an accident of history that those under 45 have been affected “dramatically” more by the property crash and recession than those 45 and over, it is of little compensation to those bearing more than their fair share of the burden. And what a burden it is. Those under 45 spend, on average, 20% less a week than they did just five years ago. The situation for older people is at the other end of the spectrum — they spend almost a third more than they did in the middle years of the last decade.

A second report published by the National Economic and Social Council yesterday reaches similarly challenging conclusions. It points to the obvious but nonetheless challenging figures around youth unemployment and regional variations in those figures.

Two areas with highest youth unemployment — Limerick at 50%, Donegal at 49% — face startling challenges, but even those areas with the lowest youth unemployment figures record — Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown at 27%, followed by Fingal and Cork county — are in situations that seem utterly unsustainable. Imagine how these figures would read if 1,500 people, the vast majority under 45, had not left Ireland each week for the last four years?

The society described in these two reports is failing dangerously and it is dysfunctional in so many other ways as well. Why is this? Is it because we still burn up our anger and energy fighting marginal issues, because we have so little faith in Government and public discourse as a route to a better, fairer society? Is it because, despite all of our piousness and sanctimony, we don’t care about others once our own needs are satisfied?

Yesterday’s reports have implications — resolve the dire issues they raise or prepare to live almost permanently in a deeply unfair and divided society. Surely that prospect is enough to provoke the kind of change and reform needed to avert such a complete failure. Or is it?


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