by Lucy Fitzgerald
The global recession has had dire consequences for Ireland. New entrants to the workforce have suffered disproportionately, with the youth unemployment rate standing at a shocking 25.9 percent. This figure is an underestimate since it does not include the huge number of young people receiving social welfare while they undertake the two government internship schemes - JobBridge, which pays only €188 a week in social welfare plus an additional €50 weekly stipend, and Gateway, which also pays €188 a week in social welfare with an additional €20 weekly stipend.JobBridge and Gateway have been widely criticized for not leading to paid work and for encouraging an internship culture whereby companies replace staff with fresh interns that are paid for with government funds, rather than company money. Young educated tradespeople, college and school-leavers, are reluctantly participating in these schemes since they are sternly threatened with a reduction in their social welfare benefits if they fail to participate.
The deputy Prime Minister, Eamon Gilmore, insists that a reduction in social welfare was justified because we should not be "permanently in front of a flat screen TV." A Social Welfare staff member – who wishes to remain anonymous – challenges this suggestion. “The majority of young people that I see applying for social welfare [are] hard-working and well-educated, even with PhDs. It makes my blood boil that they have to beg for assistance.”
This is reminiscent of my own experience. After completing my Master’s degree, I found it very difficult to obtain a job in an NGO because NGOs in Ireland have lost a significant amount of government funding. The process of accessing social welfare was long and fruitless, and in the end, I did not qualify to receive assistance. In order to finally get a job, I had to stop looking for jobs in the non-profit sector, and instead turn to the corporate sector.
The fact is that young Irish have been hit the hardest by a series of debilitating budgets. The lack of bank lending to small and medium enterprises has, in particular, severely impacted youth unemployment. I have witnessed this personally as my entrepreneurial friends are unable to fulfill their dreams of setting up their own companies due to lack of funds. In addition, the embargo on recruitment to all state agencies and the scant employment prospects in banking organizations has made getting a permanent, full-time, pensionable job almost impossible to obtain. Work in the trades, apprenticeships, and retail positions are also hard to acquire.It is certainly easier for the government to point their fingers at young people than at themselves and at the banks. When the banking crisis began in 2008, private debt became a public debt when ordinary citizens were forced to repay the debt. This crippled people’s spending power as a series of taxes were introduced at the same time as job cuts were announced. I know people who have to choose to heat their homes or to eat. Charities are the only ones who are providing food since governmental food assistance does not exist in Ireland.
There is a lack of responsibility by banking institutions for past over lending practices and by the government for the “light-touch” financial regulatory system that led to the end of the Celtic Tiger, the period of rapid economic growth in Ireland from 1995-2007. This is evident in the recent acquittal of Former Anglo Irish Bank chairman, Sean Fitzpatrick, of all charges laid against him for illegal lending while two former senior executives were spared jail time and only have to carry out community service. This shows the extent of immunity for these white-collar workers while ordinary people are made homeless due to the banks repossessing their homes and are forced to emigrate to survive.
Youth homelessness is one of the most serious consequences of the economic crisis. A child lost their home every 20 hours in 2012 and the government’s response has been to cut funding for them by 66 percent since the recession began. Young people are also the primary victims of forced emigration with the social protection department being so bold as to send them letters about jobs in Europe. Contrary to Finance Minister Michael Noonan’s belief that emigration by young people is a “free choice of lifestyle,” the vast majority of Ireland’s young workforce have no other option as the rat race for jobs and housing worsens.
Forty-two percent of young people, ages 18 to 29, now live with their parents – many of whom are already stretched financially. Those who are lucky enough to live away from home often rely upon rent allowance, which is hard to come by, and something hardly any landlord will accept. This was echoed by one job seeker. “Rent allowance is a very difficult benefit to receive even though it is impossible to survive without it as social welfare is only €188 a week and rent in the capital is around €350 a month. I was forced to lie about my situation in order to qualify for it.”
This is another push factor for young people to emigrate in large numbers. Ireland has the highest rate of emigration in Europe with one person leaving the country every six minutes, a startling figure considering the small size of the country and a population of barely 4.6 million. Family contact now consists of Skype chats, Facebook messages and Whatsapp messages. If this emigration continues, Ireland will soon be a country of old people with insufficient workers to pay taxes and look after the older generation.Even though our backs are against the wall, groups like Scambridge and ‘We’re Not Leaving’ give us hope by encouraging us to campaign for our rights. The latter have organized mass protests and regional meetings around the country, which culminated in the Young People’s Assembly last November.
Their recent May Day Festival gave young people the opportunity to discuss issues related to youth unemployment. One participant noted,“JobBridge is a way for the government to fudge the numbers to make it seem that the number of unemployed is decreasing. It is not helping people to get jobs. We want the government to create quality internships that lead to quality jobs.”
All of these issues are timely as candidates for the Local Government constituencies and the EU parliament are currently canvassing. Voters are clearly not content with the government’s post-crisis narrative. Both coalition parties, Fine Gael and Labour, have witnessed a sharp drop in support with calls even being made for Ireland’s Labour leader to resign. Ireland is heavily in debt, recording a ratio of debt to GDP of 123.70 percent in 2013 compared to a record low of 24.80 percent in 2006. Despite the government hailing Ireland’s minuscule economic growth as evidence of its success in power, we still owe more than 60 billion to the Troika, a group formed of lenders with strict austerity measures comprised of the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank.
Young people are now mobilizing to make sure that we will not be a lost generation.
About the author Lucy Fitzgerald is an Irishwoman who has lived in Spain, the United Kingdom, France, and Argentina. She is fluent in French, Spanish, and English and has an MSc in Gender and International Relations. Lucy is passionate about gender equality and development education. When she is not fundraising or campaigning, she is busy traveling and learning new languages.