What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

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One figure that is often ignored amongst the debt, interest rates and job losses may be the one that shows the biggest waste of the boom years and it may have the greatest impact on what the Ireland that emerges from the downturn looks like. 188,000 students are currently in college in Ireland. The downturn has been so sudden that the next wave of graduates, around 17,000, would have entered third level education with the promises of the boom still ringing in their ears. They leave with degrees in disciplines no longer relevant, or into sectors no longer recruiting.

The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) reports that currently there are 100,000 unemployed graduates in Ireland. A further survey by the UCD Students Union revealed that 30 per cent of recent graduates are unemployed with no plans to enter further education The official figures predicted 9 per cent. The response to the downturn has so far overlooked recent graduates. So, what now for the graduates with no future?

The looming prospect for many recent graduates is emigration, seen by many as a rite of passage for the youth of Ireland in harsh economic times. Even during the boom years thousands of graduates and young people with trades engaged in a sort of play emigration, taking year long work visas in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.


Most of these play-émigrés returned when their visas expired. Last year, Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise Mary Coughlan remarked that “they enjoyed themselves and that’s what young people are entitled to do.” Those who emigrated permanently “with degrees, PhDs, they have a greater acumen academically and have found work in other parts of the world and that’s not a bad thing”, Coughlan said. During the boom emigration was a cause for celebration, evidence that the money put into third level education and FÁS had created a young workforce the envy of other developed countries. Emigration was fetishised as proof of Ireland’s success.

On the contrary, the attitude that Ireland was simply too small to provide for its graduates highlights the complacency and instability of that system. As a result, many recent graduates are educated in sectors with such few opportunities as to make their educations next to irrelevant.

The USI report shows that, unsurprisingly, unemployment is particularly high among graduates in disciplines linked to construction; architects, engineers and lawyers. But the grim future extends to nursing, psychology and social care graduates, educated in a field which has had its funding cut to the bare bone. Teaching graduates now face a job market where hundreds apply for a single position.

The view of many is that emigration is inevitable, lest recent graduates waste their ‘free’ education. The social capital granted to them by their education gives them unprecedented freedom of movement. The world is their oyster. But the portrayal of emigration as character building and horizon expanding experience has long been contradicted by the stark reality of life for most emigrants of the last downturn. Menial labour and little opportunity in their chosen fields are the norm. Graduates of architecture and engineering may well get their chance to work in the construction sector, but it’s likely to be labouring on building sites alongside their law, humanities and science alumni.

The inevitability of emigration is entrenched by the perception of it as one of the cures for unemployment in Ireland. Presently around 1,000 people are leaving Ireland a week, while many are immigrants to Ireland returning home, the numbers of Irish emigrating is rising. And once the weight of recent graduates and other Irish youth is off the welfare system, it will aid the economic recovery. The lack of resources necessitate that any burden that can be shifted is welcomed, and there is an expectation that the youth of Ireland will emigrate in large numbers.

But unlike during the previous exodus of Irish youth, the world is in recession. America and Australia have already begun to tighten up their borders and the freedom of movement across Europe means that the traditional destination of Britain will be less fertile ground for the Irish worker than in the 1980s. Yet, the establishment is so bereft of ideas and options for recent graduates that emigration is still touted as the next logical career step, with youth unemployment increasing across Europe it remains to be seen how long this will remain a viable option.

Both public and private sector are attempting to exploit the lack of options for recent graduates. The emergence of internships and the FÁS work placement programme amount to little more than grunt work, with the carrot of a full time position dangled in front of eager young workers. Student nurses and teachers are being asked to work for free to see out the final stages of their education. There are few options for graduates in Ireland, and the attitude amongst the establishment is that nothing can be done.

The supposed inevitability of emigration and prevailing attitude that there is nothing that can be done for recent graduates shows just who benefited from the failed economic system that is now so desperately being salvaged.

In most societies wealth is transferred down the generations, from parent to child. One generation uses any benefits it enjoys, be they civil, economic or otherwise, to create a better society for the next. In Ireland the perceived necessity for young people to ‘get on the ladder’ meant the reverse, wealth was transferred from young workers to older landowners and lenders in unprecedented amounts.

In 2003 when the Central Bank first warned of a sharp fall in housing prices they were ignored, young people were urged to buy at the first opportunity as prices would continue to rise. Any subsequent warning that the bubble was soon to burst was ignored. Young people were encouraged to buy with the first time buyer’s grant, and reassured with spiels of a ‘soft landing’. Like graduate emigration during the boom, the strength of the housing market was seen as a reflection of economic and social vitality.  100% mortgages at low rates were offered on houses over ten times the average wage. It was a model designed to keep young workers in debt for decades. The Golden Circle and owners of future NAMA assets feasted on young graduates.

Home ownership is seen as a natural step in the life cycle of Irish people, it is seen as a sign of and provision for a stable future. The reasons for this are seen by some as historical. The fight against the oppressive landlord system in the not too distant past is sold as reason enough for young people to own their own home at the first available opportunity. But instead of legislating for reasonable rent or controlling prices on the housing markets, the first time buyers grant and reassurances of stability in the market deceived young people into buying overvalued homes while they could, further inflating prices. When worries emerged over the stability of the market, young people had to weigh the consequences of a sharp fall against the worries of not buying soon enough in a seemingly ever rising market. The incentives and reassurances from government and banking figures made the decision seem trivial.

Those who graduated in time to enjoy the higher wages, low taxes and lower mortgage interest rates of the boom are now weighed down in debt. Graduates of the last decade transferred all their wealth to the older generation of property developers and banks. The promised stability of property ownership proved to be nothing more than a confidence trick. Its collapse has effectively impoverished young workers and graduates.

Many first time buyers turned to their parents for financial help in securing their mortgages, they are once again looking home for support in making ends meet and keeping up repayments. Their younger siblings are unemployed, unable to leave home. Italy’s Minister for Innovation Renato Brunetta criticised this practice among his country’s youth, christening them bamboccioni, big babies. In Ireland, the hangover from the capture of first time buyers into debt has similarly stunted the growth of our youth.

With the knowledge that the boom years did not provide a stable system for their future, and the lack of real opportunity outside of Ireland, the best educated generation in Irish history is caught in limbo. There are few choices abroad and fewer still at home.

The economic and political crises of the last three years, and all their damning consequences for the future, have so far been met with a meek acceptance by the youth of Ireland. They will be disenfranchised even further as those who don’t pay income tax or own homes are treated as an afterthought in the discussion on how the country should be rebuilt.

Perhaps without the pressure relief valve of emigration this generation will not allow itself to be shunted aside in the debate on the future of Ireland.

Photo taken from Mindful Youth’s flickr stream. Many thanks.

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