March 15, 2006

The no sweat Irish: Money for nothing and their kicks for free

Posted in Celtic Tiger · 8 comments ·
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In the late 1980s, Bruges University was full of European students. Those from Ireland were in their early 20s and were marked out for export. They had all graduated, were doing post-graduates and weren’t planning to go back to Ireland. They were also the youngest at college by far – at least five, if not ten years younger than their European counterparts. The Germans, in particular, were much older and most of them had no intention of getting a job after they left. This was just another step in their education. . Who paid for all this? Their parents or the State or both, apparently.

In contrast, all of the Irish scoured the papers for jobs. They knew that this was the end of the line – bills to be paid, work to be done and a big bad world to be embraced. Most of the Irish were to stay on the continent but for others London and New York beckoned. Back then, as our educated German counterparts studied, travelled and found themselves, the Irish students went to work.

As the Germans questioned what their country and their parents had become, the Irish thanked their blessings for a job. As they worried about the Green Party and the environment, we feared American immigration officers. As they re-invented themselves, we made up social security numbers. The reason for this was simple: the Germans were second-generation wealthy while the Irish were still poor.

Fast-forward to Ireland today and we see some remarkably similar trends emerging. Like the Germans of the 1970s and 1980s, more young Irish twentysomethings are going to university than ever before and they are staying longer than ever before. When they do get out, thousands are taking a “year or two out”. A large proportion of our young travellers reject what Ireland has become. They want something different. Like Germans 20 years ago, they are turning their backs on the vulgarity of modern Ireland and its obsessions with economics, finance and wedding planners.

Many regard Ireland’s materialism with suspicion at best, contempt at worst. There are plenty of young Irish people who feel that there is more to us than Heat magazine, Brown Thomas charge cards, property prices, 06 registrations, Man Utd strips and Puerto Banus.

They believe that all the above is superficial, generic and ultimately a useless betrayal of what we are. There must be more to Ireland than a vast ATM churning out crisp fifties. They are looking for something else, something deeper, something authentic that can’t be bought. They are searching for the distinct in all this blandness. They are looking for the something that makes us special. They are searching for community in all this individualism. There must be more to the Irish than SUVs. Otherwise, we are just suburban America with bad weather.

The other week I was talking to Pat, a farmer and businessman from Thurles. He was perplexed that his son Michael – who had just left college – felt so angry. Traditionally, Michael would have taken over the farm but instead he is about to take off for Cambodia. He claimed to have no interest in coming back. His mates, from Roscrea, are practising yoga in an Indian ashram. They are going to hook up in Ho Chi Minh City at Christmas and head for Australia. These lads, in their early 20s, are disillusioned with Ireland, yet they are the country’s future. Or are they?

They are the first generation of Irish people ever to act like a leisured class. They were born in the 1980s and they were teenagers in the later 1990s. They are the children of the property boom. According to Amarach (the economic consultancy) property inheritance alone will amount to �4bn this year. While not the direct beneficiaries of this, our young “year-outers” are aware of this windfall, which obviously influences their lifestyle choices. Their parents, who worked and are, in many cases, still working flat-out, can’t understand their blas� attitude and lofty expectations. The question for the future is whether the year-outers will ever deliver on their expectations? Are they the future or will somebody else inherit the country?

The reality of modern Ireland is that for every Irish slacker kid leaving, there are two immigrants with their shirts rolled up coming in, working, paying back debts, sending money home and climbing up the ladder. Pat, Michael’s father, employs 40 Polish workers. They are all in their late teens or early 20s and without them, if he had to rely on his son and his friends, his business would be in trouble.

Who are these foreigners who seem content to do our manual jobs, live four to a room and work all the hours God gave? Just look in the mirror: they are what we were. They are the same type of people who we sent out into the world in the late 1980s. Figures on emigration at the time, reveal that Ireland exported its best and brightest. Between 1986 and 1992, one in four Irish graduates left the country.

So we were exporting five times as many graduates as unskilled workers. Contrary to popular belief, the elite emigrated. We exported an emigre aristocracy and that pattern is being repeated today all over the world. A recent ESRI study revealed that only 3pc of our immigrants as opposed to over 30pc of our indigenous workforce left school without basic qualifications.

So what are the long-term implications of work-shy, Irish middle-class kids heading off to see the world at the same time as educated Polish kids come here to work as hard as they can? Internationally, studies from Israel offer some interesting answers. Israel, as the Jewish homeland, has experienced three separate waves of major mass immigration on the scale we are experiencing at present.

The most recent occurred in the early 1990s when 800,000 Jews from the Soviet Union immigrated. This constituted about 14pc of the population – close to the proportion of foreign born people now living in Ireland. Initially in Tel Aviv, the Russian immigrants took any job they could. Wages at the bottom end were pushed down as a consequence – much the same as is happening here.

The debate focussed on displacement, low wages and worker protection. At first, the middle classes were left largely untouched. As far as they were concerned, if the immigrants brought down the cost of plumbing, dry cleaning and home security, this was fine.

But the Israeli middle classes, just like the Irish middle classes, were living in a dream-world because it was only a matter of time before the educated immigrants started getting jobs commensurate with their qualifications. This took on average eight years. The debate changed from being one about exploitation to one about competition. The economy grew strongly because the immigrant’s productivity rose rapidly. However, the middle classes – who initially thought they would not suffer – found themselves up against much stiffer opposition in business than they had expected.

The main lesson is that educated immigrants will not do the manual jobs forever. They will move up rapidly and they will elbow out and show-up many of our gilded generation. The lad who is washing your car today will be running the garage tomorrow. The girl who is minding your children will be lecturing tomorrow. When the year-outers get bored of the ashram and finally come home, they will find it much harder to get a job.

Like my German classmates in Bruges – who expected to come home to a standard of living above that of their parents – they might find it tough going with an economy growing less robustly and ambitious immigrants. And crucially, as with so many other issues, it is when the middle classes get hit that we can expect the real political fireworks.


  1. Niall D

    Yes, very insightful piece. I agree that much of what say
    about qualified immigrants being ambitions and that it is an
    often overlooked aspect to immigration which causes many
    middle class people to be unduly complacent for what it may
    mean for them and their children.
    While the Israeli experience is useful insofar as to
    understand its impact, one important distinct between here
    and there is the fact the ‘natives’ and the immigrants there
    share a common identity, if not necessarily common experience.

    The prospect of ethnic rivalry mightn’t be as likely as it
    is in a situation were the immigrants/’ethnics’ don’t share
    a strong sense of identity (either with each other or the
    ‘natives’). This would make me more concerned about the
    situation here .

  2. Aidan

    There has definitely been a sea change in attitudes in
    Ireland when it comes to career and study choices. I come
    from that 1980s generation that was filled with the fear of
    unemployment. When I was finishing school (Roscrea as it
    happens) you were expected to go to study pharmacy,
    medicine, law, engineering or accountancy. I remember
    mentioning French as an option as it was my best subject
    but all I heard back then was the ‘no jobs’ argument. It
    was definitely a different world when people studying at an
    elitist school were so concerned with their employment
    prospects.
    Modern Irish kids are definitely better off not having that
    kind of pressure. Taking risks and not always looking at
    the job ads means that you can develop a much rounder
    version of yourself. When these guys come back from their
    world travels some of them will be bringing back creative
    and entrepeneurial ideas too. I guess the danger is that
    some of them will just be lazy and will live off the fat of
    their parents but that won’t be the case for all of them.

    For Polish people now I find it very sad that most people
    cannot get a job in what they are qualified in. My wife
    graduated in Marketing and not one of her class works in a
    filed related to it. My brother-in law has a degree in
    Manufacturing Systems Engineering and, again, the lack of
    suitable jobs means that this will go to waste. This is
    definitely untapped potential and these people will compete
    more and more for jobs in rest of Europe including Ireland
    as time goes on.

  3. Griff

    I agree with the analysis of the generation born in the
    1980s. Many expect everything handed to them on a plate;
    they may well get this given the property wealth of their
    parents.

    I distinctly remember that picking your university degree
    in the early 1990s was about the job you could get
    afterwards. I’m only in my early 30s, yet I feel little in
    common with the under 25s who would think this way (though
    not all do). I feel more sympathetic to the Poles
    (Heresy?).

    I also remember German/Benelux/French students (then in
    their early 30s vs most of us aged 22-24) that came over
    to do master degrees in Ireland in the 1980s/1990s and how
    much they expected (3 day Spa weekend paid for by company
    for the Germans, defined benefit pension, 30 days
    holidays, etc…) when they finally, after a decade of
    third level education, sought employment back in their own
    country.

    They must feel insecure in these cushy jobs now. I would
    expect so, unless they are in state employment.

    I hope the under-25s don’t require the shock of a circa-
    1980s economy Ireland to wake them from any complacency.

    Anyway, off for a Paddy’s day pint now…

  4. Pete

    I’m absolutely delighted to hear that you’ve found some
    kids in their early 20′s who are questioning the
    environment that they grew up in, who are angry and
    disillusioned, who want to travel and experience different
    things and think and learn and try to be themselves and
    not who their parents have told them they are. That’s what
    kids that age SHOULD be like. They’ll outgrow it in a
    couple of years, and Ireland will be a better place for
    them having got it out of their system instead of living
    with a vague, unfocussed resentment for the rest of their
    lives, as many of their parents have.

    The kids I can’t stand are the ones who’ve never had an
    original thought or questioned anything in their lives,
    are unbearably superior and smug because Daddy bought a
    few houses back in the 70′s (which they see as a brilliant
    move on themselves, even though they we’re born yet), see
    debt as a one-way transaction (“pay it back? Huh?”), judge
    people by the model of mobile phone they have, and would
    never consider even owning a backpack, never mind wearing
    one.

  5. Niall

    David, agree wholeheartedly with your comments about
    attitude of current crop of Irish graduates and its
    potential implications.

    To contrast somewhat over here in the U.S. you see many
    incredibly serious kids, driven by their middle class
    parents, who, from a young age, are massively focused on
    getting that V.P. job in corporate America. No doubt many
    succeed and end up wealthy but you’d wonder if they are not
    a bit one dimensional in character, nearly appearing to
    define themselves by what they do as against who they are.
    A New York Times columnist recently wrote an Op-Ed piece
    encouraging college kids to chill out, take those courses
    in Ancient Greek culture or whatever and travel to find out
    more about life before going down the corporate road.

    Both Ireland and the US currently have the luxury of
    presenting their middle class offspring with these choices.
    Other countries’ graduates do not have such luxuries
    (India, China, Poland etc.)nor did I when I left college in
    the 80′s.

    As the economic cycle evolves circumstances will change and
    the tide may turn downwards for Irish graduates.
    Perspective is a wonderful thing but in this day and age
    its hard to expect a 20 year old to have a real
    appreciation of whats going on. So hopefully they will
    enjoy their “out time” and when real life beckons, as it
    always does, they are smart and skilled enough to make the
    transition.

  6. David Mc Williams

    Thanks for all your comments. Pete, I couldn’t agree with
    you more. It is great to see our twentysomethings getting
    out there, my only reservation is the pace at which this
    country is changing might surprise them when they get
    back. But I agree with your sentiments. Thanks again,
    David

  7. Luke

    Hi David,

    This would have been a good piece, if published in five or
    six years time. I think the class of 2008/9 will be the real
    class of the property boom. Most families who had children
    at third level in the late 90s and early 2000s had to spend
    the money their neighbours were investing in property to
    send their kids to college.

    The opinion (Griff) that children of the 1980s are spoilt is
    untrue, maybe late 1980s kids but certainly not early. The
    Irish economy didn’t really pick up until 98/99 (when our
    GDP / PPS equalled the UK). This is just the same time when
    we were going to college, so most of our lives were without
    coke in the fridge.

    David I’ve been reading your articles for some years and I
    greatly enjoy your Sunday Business Post articles. Your
    recent drift into the Irish Independent is somewhat
    disappointing. These article don’t have the same level of
    research, intelligence or opinion. I would hope you improve
    this and bring it up to your Business Post level.

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