December 27, 2006

Nation of adults now behaving just like spoilt little children

Posted in Ireland · 30 comments ·
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Now that you’ve splurged, given, received, admired, gushed, drunk, gorged and financed it all on the “never never”, let’s take stock. Will 2007 be a good or bad year? What will determine success or failure and, most importantly, will we continue on the path which we have trodden since 2000 – the one of ever-increasing debt, higher house prices, more immigration and more congestion? In short, will the affluent trajectory which has catapulted modern Ireland forward continue? Will the election be won on the simple slogan “it’s the economy, stupid” or will some other imperative grab us?

This time of the year is a usual one for reflection. What’s it all about? Have we got it right? Are we missing the big picture?

Many have argued – from both the Right and the Left – that a country like Ireland might just be reaching the point where more breakneck economic growth does not increase our happiness or quality of life. On the Left, commentators contend that we have lost something, our families are being destroyed by overworking, overeating and stress – all caused by the voracious demands of the corporate economy, the traditional Right agree, but see a different culprit.

They see the breakdown in the family and associated stress rooted in the moral permissiveness that affluence affords. Positions have been turned on their heads.

The Church speaks the language of Marx, while former Marxists – writing in the Press – extol the primacy of old-fashioned Catholic “back to basics” campaigns. So where do we go from here? Well the main thing that will affect the economy next year is the price of money. The Irish economy is in fact two beasts. The first is the multinational economy which is impervious to domestic trends. The only home-grown factor that impacts on it is whether there are enough graduates to fill positions and at what price. The key here is narrow competitiveness.

There are big problems in this regard, as we are not producing enough engineers in Ireland any more. If you visit Intel in Leixlip for example, it resembles the United Nations with small colonies of Indians, Italians and Israelis, as well as Chinese, Filipino and the ubiquitous, Eastern Europeans.

Our ability in this sphere is supply-driven. Can we supply the inputs of labour and keep the tax system advantageous? For these companies, the main factor in shaping 2007 is global demand. This seems to be fine. The only problem is whether the dollar falls significantly. In the past few months, the unsustainability of the US’s imbalance – both the trade and budget deficits – have become apparent.

A rapidly falling dollar would be bad news for us – although at this stage, Ireland is so much part of corporate America’s supply-chain that it is difficult to see an immediate threat to the multinational sector.

For your job and well-being, the big issue is domestic spending. This is the stuff we are all at and is dependent mainly on the rate of interest. We have broken the link long ago between income and spending; today the only thing that determines Irish spending is the availability of credit. If interest rates rise and the housing market weakens further, the game is up. This again looks unlikely in 2007.

The main reason is that Germany, although recovering, is not going to see a spending splurge and as a consequence, the European Central Bank, is unlikely to increase the cost of mortgages aggressively. But park that thought for a while because we still have to analyse why so many people feel empty in this time of plenty.

Why are so many people, from different ends of the ideological spectrum, asking questions about the limits of economic growth? Why will the election be fought on quality of life issues? The answer is simple – inflated expectations. We do not – nor should we – accept the idea that Ireland is catching up. We have appalling public services and they are getting worse by any international yardstick. This (rightly) angers us. Why – when the government has a huge budget surplus – should we have the worst road system in Europe? Why are the trains so filthy and second rate? Why are the schools overcrowded? Why does it cost 15 times the average wage to get a house and even when you gets this roof over your head, why are you out in the sticks, a four hour round-trip from your job?

However, there is another deep-seated and more psychological reason why economic growth is failing to make us happy. It is a question of infantilism. The more we have the more we want. And what we want, we don’t need. Other people’s possessions are making us envious and other’s achievements are making us jealous.

How did this happen? If you look at the way your children behave at Christmas, you get an idea of what is happening to the adult population. Children want all their presents now, they want the biggest and the best.

If they don’t get everything, they freak. They lose interest in minutes and want the next thing. Today’s Irish adults are behaving in the same way. No house is good enough, no kitchen sophisticated enough, no holiday exotic enough, no sex orgasmic enough – frankly, we have not grown up. At some stage between 1997 and 2007 our emotional growth rate has become stunted. We became obsessed with what others have. Instead of growing up, we reverted back to infancy. Ireland’s adult population is behaving like babies. If you doubt this, watch the scramble for 07 registrations in the next few days. This is the adult equivalent of Sylvanians for seven year olds at Christmas.

So rather than making us happy, copious cash is making many people insecure.

With precious little spiritual activity out there and no national binding project like, for example, the resurrection of the nation and independence, we are experiencing a form of stunted growth. Yes we are happy, but only momentarily until the next yearning comes on us, until the next “lack” of something manifests itself.

This is not just happening in Ireland, but is occurring all over the English-speaking world.

WE have simply forgotten to grow-up and are caught somewhere between permanent infantilism and adolescence – one second overwhelmingly egocentric, the next desperately wanting to belong. This is this psychological challenge for Ireland over the coming decade – and economics is not up to the job. This is a political challenge and what better year to ask the questions then this election year, 2007.

Dear Reader, I am taking a few months off to bury myself away researching and writing a new book. The column will return later in 2007. Happy New Year.


  1. Excellent article! It summs up my thoughts to a tee.

    Oll.

  2. Catherine Sara

    Perhaps before this the church controlled every thouhgt we had, so we never felt full responsibility before. I mean now we have to think for ourselves as we become free and for some that is scary.
    It is a little like releasing people from prison and it will take time for us to adjust.
    It is called inner bonding.

  3. Germaine

    And the joke is that money is simply paper or now numbers on screens. It does not really exist as gold or anything precious.Licenced by a 8 few powerful men on the planet and we amadan’s forced to use it.
    When the computers go down and they will, what will everyone do then.????

  4. Michael

    Walking past the line at 8:15am on Wednesday morning at Gucci on Old Bond St in London, where 50+ people waited to get another bag/shoes/etc…then past the same line at Prada, made me feel a little sick to my stomach. Once we wanted a chicken in every pot and roof over our heads, now it is a mercedes in every drive and a holiday home in spain. What will be the next level? I suspect we have reversion, but unfortunately this will most likely be caused by trauma which force individuals to focus on what is really important. Watch the rejuvination of the born-again-christians in America. They are more often scoffed at today – but maybe they are early!

  5. Like others I was appalled by the sales.
    I went into town to get my haircut – but my haridresser was obviously shopping for “bargains.”
    Found the whole experience a bit scary – you see people who can not afford the lifestyles that they are living buying things that they want.

    As someone who does not overly buy into this way of life it’s good to hear a voice like your’s David (crying in the wilderness)

    Good luck with the new book and the time off.

    P.s. I was going to buy your book the Pope’s Children (bargain but I think that I’ll wait to swap it with a friend or borrow it from my brother.

  6. Shane O

    Congratulations David, You have hit the nail on the head with this article. Hopefully people will eventually “sober up” and Ireland will adopt some sort of less selfish value system to mirror that of our grandparents and that still partially exists in rural areas.

  7. John

    “I went into town to get my haircut – but my hairdresser was obviously shopping for “bargains.”
    My hairdresser? Pot and kettle?

  8. ronnie

    All hail Warren Buffett the 2nd richest man on planet who announced this year that he is to give away his billions like many other American billionaires. I saw a documentary about him and he lives less frugally than most Irish people. Lives in a relatively cheap house drives a relatively cheap car eats at an ordinary blue collar restaurant every day. He knows material wealth and pursuit of ever more possesions at any price brings no lasting hapiness .

  9. shtove

    Catherine Sara says this irresponsibility is part of the process of inner bonding, in a period when we’ve been getting used to the freedom from thought control by the church.

    The height of the bishops’ authority was in the 1950s, half a century ago. And that was at a time when the only European countries that were experiencing a liberation of the purse strings were those that had been freed from occupation by the Nazis and managed to avoid occupation by the Soviets.

    The frenzy has nothing to do with the church’s loss of thought control (whatever that is – don’t Irish people understand the benefits of the church’s teachings on conscience and social responsibility?). It’s about borrowing to spend. Beyond that, I don’t understand why we’re profligate compared to the Germans, French or Italians. Maybe the Spanish are a better comparison. But the best comparison is with the British.

  10. David,

    I don’t think there is any less spiritual activity than twenty years ago – people may have gone to church more, but there was never much sign that much of what they heard ran very deep. Having a professional interest in the subject, the spirituality of those who do attend is more developed than would have been the case twenty years ago. There has been a considerable maturing of faith and an appropriation of theology by individuals – this conflicts with a hierarchical model of the church, but hierarchies command little respect in post-modern society anyway.

    Your suggestion that people have regressed to infantilism is pretty much in accord with the suggestion of a 1st Century itinerant preacher that it is pointless gaining the whole world if you lose your soul – what can you give in exchange for your soul?

    Happy new year.

    Ian

  11. Allen-low cost

    I suppose the moral of the story is that you can give a fool a good job, and a credit card. But you are still watching a fool. And David is correct, Irish people are behaving recklessly. It’s like this. As Eddie Hobbs said, we don’t seem to have a planning gene. Instead we have a stupid gene which says, “ah sure, forget about tomorrow, shure it will all work out grand won’t it”.
    It is exactly this sort of mindset that has us living in a infrastructural mess. We can’t plan for tomorrow, either at an individual level. Or at an institutional level. And whatever we blame on the Catholic Church, we can’t blame that on them, because they had us planning for heaven all along anyway.

  12. Pedro

    This article is very interesting and it has a universal application. Please let me suggest from Spain that title could change to “World of adults…” or “Adult-supposed Mankind…”
    I don’t know why it happens (i mean, about the adult behavior) but it’s been obviously allowed by future (job, income) expectations and low interest rates.
    The main problem is what will happen if global economy go down any moment from now or just stops its growing rates, anyway so probably that it fears us.
    And if, with the freedom in ethical (sorry, is this the right spelling?) issues, people would be able to come back to past lifestyles.
    “New-rich” people (we called in Spain) could have taken a very high risk.
    Happy New Year.

  13. Damien

    A guy I know earns just under the average wage, he very recently bought a house in West Dublin. He told the bank he earns an additional 9K a year extra doing a cash-in-hand “nixer” which enables him to afford the mortgage repayments. What he didn’t tell them was that he “earns” this playing poker. This is scary on so many levels it beggars belief.

  14. Tony D

    Damien,
    Thats unbelievable, I heard AIB are handing out mortgages to immigrants. All they have to do is get five of them together and they get approval. There reason is not to get on the property ladder, its to sell at a higher price. 5 Polish was the story I heard in particular.
    Its like the Nasdaq, all in, margined to the hilt……..but that market fell 75% in just 18 months.

  15. Damien

    Tony D, I’ve heard of that too…it’s frightening.
    In my example the guy works in telesales…not great security or earnings up-side …but does actually need his poker winnings to service the mortgage. This may be an extreme case but it shows how relaxed/negligent the lenders are.

  16. Mark

    So very true. I too feel frightened and nervous at all these people trampling over one another before christmas and then for the sales. All for the accumulation of ‘stuff’. I will never understand.

    And as for happiness, well, I lost someone very dear to me in 2005 & have been on welfare since, living on 160 euros a week. Soon I will have to find a job and will probably 4 x times that to live on but I will still be miserable. Money makes you comfortable but it sure doesn’t make you happy….

  17. Kevin

    Jeeze Dave, you seem to be a getting a bit more positive about the housing market!

  18. Vandala

    This is all well and good, but any journalist worth his salt will have the dignity to credit his source:

    http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/politicsphilosophyandsociety/0,,1973096,00.html

  19. Jonathan Benson

    Interesting article and interesting responses. I think that whenever a crisis emerges there’s always a temptation to go back to the good old days or even the bad old days.This is why the parallel between the Ireland of the 1950′s and present day Ireland is continually dragged up and the main difference betwen the two is that there was more religion and less money then and the opposite now. Therefore some people contend that religion or lack thereof is the cause of our current set of problems. I think that’s pure crap and with all due respect to the devout amoung you, there’s always plenty of bible bashers about at every given crisis wagging their fingers and telling us that religion will solve all our problems despite having no evidence, historical or otherwise, that it will.
    Let’s look at the facts. Studies have shown that money doesn’t bring happiness. Once you earn above a certain threshold the extra cash matters less and less. In particular, when everyone else’s income has risen in line with yours you don’t feel any richer. Furthermore, working harder and harder just to splurge the extra dough on some junk you don’t need is fruitless. Sure you’ll feel great in the short term but the feeling won’t last long. Apparently you are beter off spending your time and money on activities you enjoy. Needless to say most family, social and sporting activities cost less that a new kitchen or a new car etc. Spending time with you family and friends is free. Most sports and socal clubs are relatively inexpensive. Another interesting thing that some studies turn up is that the level of happiness or sadness that people associate with events is often way off. The happiness associated with buying a new car is not 1000 better than buying a CD despite expectations of such. In short, forget about the overtime and the new lexus you wanted to buy. Spend the time with family and friends, join a club; and if you feel the need for retail therapy buy a few small items.
    Check out these articles
    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E0DEFD61538F934A3575AC0A9659C8B63&sec=health&spon=&pagewanted=1
    http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S15/15/09S18/index.xml?section=topstories

  20. MARY

    Hi R

    I am really intresrted to know why Parents of Young hildren spend all day in shopping centres with Bored Children . Is this because we are Nation of Couples with no intrested beyond jobs and domestic jobs any nothing in common with each other and hoardes of married people in bars making fooles of themselves .we know who you are ??.

  21. Conor

    Vandala

    It’s superfluous to bring attention to the fact that David’s article is simply a rehashing of a different work, with “London” replaced by “Lucan”, or “Minnesota” by ” Mayo”. Just take a look at any of his previous articles and the game is up.

    It’s just funny that in the Internet age people don’t just go straight to the sources, rather than rely on the local town crier.

  22. david o

    I’m glad my native old sod is showing it’s true colours.The best thing it could have done for me was ask me to leave it .well here’s to the opinion of the uneducated
    [The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win,you're still a rat. ] Lily Tomlin

  23. Came across this little video on liveleak.com…
    Was wondering if this is where we in Ireland are going.
    http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=e4d7376448

  24. Patrick Kelly

    David,

    just spotted from this that you are taking some time off, and to work on a book. ‘Enjoy’ as dj Lisa Ansen would say. Pick up John O’ Donoghue’s Anam Cara to refresh the soul in all things Celtic.
    We Irish are different.

    Patrick K.

  25. [...] RSS Trackback URL 21. March 2007 (15:53) Filed under:Ireland [...]

  26. [...] Year seems a celebration of people looking for meaning. I found a piece written by David McWilliams in the Irish Independent four years ago in which he regarded [...]

  27. [...] first article from the archives is about the search for some meaning at Christmas as the nation continued to splurge in late 2006 and the other article from that week about the state of the [...]

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