May 20, 2009
Two years ago, in the book and accompanying TV series ‘The Generation Game’ I suggested that the imminent recession would be severe and would affect the generations differently.
The most exposed generation, who were termed the “Juggling Generation”, were the young workers who had just been cajoled onto the property ladder and who were largely living in commuter towns outside our major cities and urban areas. These were the people who would lose their jobs, sink under debts and be mired in negative equity.
The Irish “Baby Belt”, that huge swathe of the country where the population exploded in the boom, would slump from the vibrancy of young families and the positive dynamic of expectations of a better life to dejection and anger as the dream evaporated.
At the time, this dystopia was regarded as extreme. Many commentators dismissed these predictions as the work of an idiosyncratic crank making outlandish pronouncements in order to sell books.
Well now it is happening as forecast and the implications for politics and the nature of our society are enormous.
Things do fall apart and sometimes we need to “think the unthinkable”. A familiarity with the rudiments of economics might help too.
If a generation with young families is abandoned in the suburbs with no jobs and negative equity, they face three choices. First, they can emigrate if they can face the upheaval and find a place that might accept them. Second, they can stay here and snarl on the dole, possibly waiting for a political messiah to deliver them out of this darkness.
Third, they can rely on themselves, take things by the scruff of the neck and try to work their way out.
Over the coming years, I hope that they will do the latter.
There are many reasons to be optimistic but it will take time to (a) get over the shock and (b) figure out what to do next.
As you read this, all over the country there are people in desperation who don’t know what to do next or where to turn. As unemployment rises, these private kitchen crises will become more widespread.
The ramifications in terms of family breakdown, psychological problems and social chaos are self-evident. Last weekend, I listened to a GP from one such town, Gorey in Wexford, which has seen its population rocket since 2000.
He explained that the recession was not prompting a surge in attendance of the poor and the old, who are the “normal” visitors to his clinic.
He spoke of young fathers in their 30s, men who had never been to a doctor before, arriving into the clinic depressed, anxious and in need of counselling. They simply can’t cope.
In order to see what’s happening and where, let’s take a drive out from the centre of any of our cities with their cafes, shops, bars, immigrants, students, young workers and foreigners who live in the thousands of apartments built over the past 10 years.
There are still some old inner city residents, but the big demographic change has been the influx of young people, born in the suburbs, back into town swapping the box room in Mammy’s for the box room in town. They are mainly renting, young and single. The recession is biting here but in different ways.
Let’s continue out past the inner suburbs, the original 1940s and 1950s council estates. These houses are built to last and these areas have seen a huge surge in wealth and stability since the 1980s. Gone are the Hiace vans on blocks in gardens, Hallowe’en bonfires and chippers; these have been replaced by black SUVs, holiday homes in Alicante, steady incomes and careers.
If we drive on to the older professional suburbs, we see nothing but red-brick solidity. These people, the ultimate insiders in the Irish parlour game, have done very well indeed. You can see it in their bodies. They weigh less than they did at the start of the boom. Some are over-extended in two-bit syndicates that old college mates in red cords duped them into. As a result, there will be spectacular crashes, which will dominate their dinner party gossip, but ultimately they’ll be ok. They always are. At worst they will become poor versions of the European middle class.
Let’s keeping driving over the ring road, past the toll bridges and the Giraffe Early Learning Centre and creche, past the Woodies DIY, Borders and the chrome and glass VW sales garage. Keep to the left beyond the TK Maxx, Curries and Tescos, the Indian takeaway and the Costa coffee shop. Keep going, you’re nearly here.
Take a right. Into the new estate — yes that’s the one, Knightsbridge Wood. You are in the home of the Jugglers. Here is the carnage. These houses, built in 2003, are all in negative equity. Unemployment is rising rapidly. Unemployment has tripled in counties Kildare, Meath and Laois since ‘The Generation Game’ was published. This is where we are going to see the greatest social problems in the coming years and expect to see the same pattern in the areas surrounding Cork, Galway and Limerick.
At the moment this is a creeping geographical phenomenon but it will soon become the single biggest issue in Irish politics.
The Jugglers are Ireland’s outsiders — yet they are our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, our cousins, nieces, and nephews. They have been hung out to dry and as the most potentially productive generation in the country, if they don’t recover, we won’t recover.