Previously published in the Irish Examiner
AUSTERITY, unemployment, and the recession have affected some groups in our society more than others.
A generation of Irish youth has been, and remains, disproportionally impacted.
Almost 10% of our young people emigrated during the recession. That equates to over 30,000 young people, aged between 15 and 24, leaving each year.
Emigration has steadily worsened the longer the crisis has dragged on. Just under 20,000 Irish emigrated in 2009. This rose to 30,000 in 2010 and then reached over 50,000 in 2013. Some have questioned if this is actually “forced” emigration.
The Higher Education Authority has emphasised that not everybody emigrating is doing so because they have to and, in fact, the increasing employment of graduates overseas shows that the higher education system is producing graduates who are in “high demand” internationally.
Michael Noonan, the finance minister, also captured the views of the so-called insider classes when he glibly remarked that many of those leaving have been doing so as a “lifestyle choice”. This attempted dismissal of “forced” or “economic” emigration downplays the impact of government policies such as austerity and the failure to provide decent employment opportunities here in Ireland.
Last year’s study by the department of geography in University College Cork showed the majority of emigrants were between 20 and 29 and the majority were emigrating in order to find a job. It also found that almost half (47%) were employed full time before leaving, 13% were working part-time, 23% were unemployed and 15% were students.
Almost 70% of emigrants had a third-level qualification such as valuable IT or health professional skills. Young people are, therefore, being forced to emigrate not just because of a lack of jobs in Ireland (the unemployment rate among those 15-24 is 30%) but also because of under-employment — low pay, insecure contracts, and poor career prospects. The public sector reduction in recruitment levels and pay for new entrants has added to the problem. At third level, for example, there is an increasing issue with the use of short-term and non-contract teaching staff.
For those young people who do not want to leave or cannot leave, austerity has hit them hard. The Fianna Fáil-led government in 2009 cut jobseeker’s payments for those aged 22-24 by €44 (to €144) and for those aged 18-21 by €88 (to €100).
The Fine Gael-Labour government reduced it further for 22-24 year olds to €100. Work incentive initiatives such as JobBridge have been criticised for exploiting young people and worsening the inaccurate narrative that youth are lazy and to blame for their own unemployment.
It has resulted in the displacement of employment opportunities. Public and private-sector employers are using the JobBridge and internship schemes to replace what used to be fully paid entry-level positions. Thus the jobs market for young workers increasingly resembles that of the United States, where working for free or for little pay as an intern is becoming an essential part of a modern curriculum vitae.
Furthermore, almost 20% of 15-25 year olds are NEETs (not in education, employment or training). Ireland has the fourth highest NEET population in the EU. Many of the integral supports to such young people have also been radically cut, such as community and youth workers in disadvantaged areas.
Their possibility of attending third level has been further reduced by rising fees and reductions in the availability and amount of the student grant.
All this shows the way in which the insiders in Irish society, ie the “older” generation and existing “order” — those in power, in senior positions in civil service, business, and civil society organisations have protected themselves at the expense of our youth. It is not an exaggeration to say they have imprisoned and sacrificed a generation of young people with the costs of austerity and the banking crisis.
Young people are an easy target They traditionally do not vote. They don’t have a voice in the media. Most commentators are closer to 60 than 20. They have been outsiders in a system that sought to protect its privileges at the expense of those more vulnerable and the young and future generations. They are the victims of an acceptance of emigration as a “natural” phenomenon.
It is sad to see how recent developments are being warped into a celebration of the international ‘competitiveness’ of our graduates. But our education system just turns young people into commodities. They are taught at secondary and third level to study as an individual, in its narrowest sense. To focus on getting the highest mark and making themselves marketable and employable as their primary aim.
They are rarely taught to be critical thinkers, aware of the challenges faced by their surrounding society, nor are they inculcated with a passion or idealism of commitment to better their country. And so they pursue the strategy they are taught. They leave. We export them to a country that wants to purchase their commodified skills.
But they are not products. They are our children, they live in our communities. Their leaving represents our collective destruction as a nation and the slow rotting of our communities. Of course it suits the political system that potential critical and radical youthful voices leave. Throughout Irish history emigration has provided a very useful political safety valve. Figures suggest that without it the unemployment rate would be around 20%. It removes the problem of angry young people who might demand alternatives.
Just look at the streets of Spain and Greece — young people dominate the protests. A new youth campaign, called We’re Not Leaving, has been campaigning against what they have termed the “social catastrophe of forced emigration”. They explain that the crisis has had a detrimental impact on the mental health of our young people.
The cut to guidance counsellors at secondary level hasn’t helped in this regard and neither has the on-going underfunding of mental health services.
The legacy of this crisis in creating a lost generation of youth is already profound and its implications are likely to be devastating for decades to come.