Have Ireland’s 30-somethings been spoiled by expectations?

The entire country is aghast at the housing crisis, with over 8,000 homeless including 3,000 children. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has not helped matters by playing down the scale of the problem by describing it as low by international standards. The disaster has been caused by a lack of capital spending since 2008 – the consequences of the financial crisis meant all bailout funds were used to pay Ireland’s debt burden.

The health and housing systems have thus been starved of investment for almost a decade, leaving the country overwhelmingly unprepared for the side-effects of the recovery. The combination of returning migrants and more people choosing to stay in Ireland are placing immense pressure on rental prices. Figures suggest that Dublin tenants spend over half of their take-home pay on rent.

According to economist Stephen Kinsella, the effects of the housing crisis will continue to weigh on the country for the next ten to 15 years. Speaking to FT Alphachat earlier this year, he explained that people in their 30s to 40s are the hardest hit. Our prospects of getting on the housing ladder are fairly dismal. And conditions are only expected to worsen with Brexit threatening our only thriving indigenous industry, agri-food – not to mention the instability posed by a hard border with Northern Ireland.

From poor to prosperous

Today’s 30-somethings grew up during the Celtic Tiger years (1995-2002). This was when Ireland evolved from being a developing economy into a developed, or rich-world, economy. Living standards finally converged with that of our Western European, British and North American peers.

The succeeding ‘boom’ years paved the way for the bust. Easy credit enabled too many people to take out loans and leverage their debt, despite being completely financially-unfit for this type of behaviour. Regulation was weak and, at the very least, people were naïve about the type of tactics used by banks to encourage borrowing. We all now largely agree that this was reckless, although there are no guarantees that we will not be vulnerable to these temptations again. Memories are short after all.

Great expectations

As a 30-something, I am quite worried about my prospects in Ireland. I thought it was all about getting a good education to be able to secure a good job and a nice home. After graduating in 2008, I was strongly encouraged to move to London given the tsunami that was set to hit Ireland. I did so for seven years and I am among the many thousands who have chanced their luck by returning home. Yet the sentiment that surrounds me is not that different from when I left: that the future is bleak. Most countries are, I would expect, pretty dissatisfied with their situations. The difference for Ireland is that emigration has always been promoted as the solution to the lack of opportunities.

That attitude faded during the Celtic Tiger years. Today’s 30-somethings were led to believe that they would achieve the lifestyles they viewed on American TV shows, once cable went mainstream. At the very least, that meant having the means to travel and to buy a home in Ireland. And that belief continues to pervade millennials or ‘generation snowflake’ today.

Older people often scoff at those expectations with a note of “in my day”, which is not very helpful – especially when they have managed to secure homes and families and retirement savings. And were not subject to zero-hour contracts and enjoyed jobs for life. Listening to a popular radio show recently, the 69-year-old host advised a 36-year-old listener to find a wife if he wanted to afford a mortgage. That was certainly not the attitude of the 1970s.

It is also worth highlighting that during the recent financial crisis, our Polish peers stayed – helping to stem the flow of talent. This was because they were far more used to economic headwinds than Irish youths.

So I sat down last night and discussed all this with my family. My sister graduated in the late 80s and was the only one of her close-knit friends not to emigrate.

“What were your expectations?” I asked.

“We didn’t have any,” she answered.

I’m not sure which is worse but one thing is for sure: Ireland’s 30-somethings have been spoiled and smashed by expectations.

 

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It’s up to millennials to determine a new course for humanity

If we succumb to despair we will help ensure that the worst will happen. And if we grasp the hopes that exist and work to make the best of them, there might be a better world.

– Noam Chomsky, Truthout, October 2014

As a white, western millennial (born 1982-2004), it is easy to take democracy for granted. We haven’t really had to fight for our civil liberties, although there has been the occasional tussle for equality related to gender or sexuality. Our births coincided with the dawn of the internet. As we grew up, the web exploded into an orgy of social media networks that have fanned our narcissism; our self-grandeur; our indifference. Older generations glance down at us as spoilt, ignorant brats with no appreciation for humanity. We are perceived as delicate but insensitive.

However, we are also the generation expected to achieve lower living standards than our parents. The baby boomers (born 1946-1964) are derided for stealing our futures through intergenerational transfers. That means they are spending our savings today under the belief that we will spend our children and grandchildren’s savings when we retire. This relies on the premise that there will always be future generations available for funding. But with increased uncertainty on the stability of the planet under the threat of nuclear war – as well as an alarming level of pollution, overpopulation and natural disaster – the belief in an enduring humankind is waning.

On top of this is the housing crisis, which is not limited to the Irish capital. Rental rates across many parts of the rich world are astronomical, forcing young people to either live with their parents; undertake long commutes to work; or to settle somewhere more remote than hoped. Economic growth has stagnated, constraining incomes and eroding real wages. Healthcare is increasingly privatized (and less affordable). Overall, the gap between rich and poor is widening. Yet we are consuming more than ever. Still, the satisfaction from this is increasingly overshadowed by the negative consequences – obesity, cancer, diabetes, carbon emissions, automation, etc.

Perpetual consumerism

Microeconomics hangs on the idea of utility, which is essentially another word for happiness. Each of us strives to maximise our utility, usually through increased consumption. However, there is a crunch point where our marginal utility levels out; that is, more consumption becomes less enjoyable than it once was. Economics books often take the example of pizza. When we’re hungry, the first slice of pizza is heaven. After five or six slices (depending on your appetite), another piece basically feels like a chore. The question then is whether the benefits of capitalism have been maximized – can it still raise our rich-world utility?

This is a pertinent question for millennials.

We have done nothing of value for society – yet. We are stomping around in our parents’ shoes, following in their path, but feeling a pinch at the heels because the shoes are not our fit. We are frustrated with the state of the world. The novelty of never-ending consumption has worn off. Despite the stereotype, we want a life that is more meaningful. More wholesome. More revering. But we have no idea how to achieve it.

We are caught at a cross-road. Should we persevere along our parents’ path and ignore our throbbing feet? After all, some of us will achieve or even surpass their living standards. That means passing the problem on to our children though. And if the trend has only one direction, our kids will face a tougher battle than we did. This question was not around when our parents were growing up. We are the first generation – the millennials – who must decide if capitalism, founded on consumerism, is still in our best interests.

Weight of the world

We must ask if there are other ways to promote integration and cooperation in a world where corporate greed underlies all of our aspirations. Because although we may be privileged enough to have never had to march for basic human rights, we are the generation that will determine the fate of the world. Today’s myopic politicians disregard us because of our irrelevance to their futures. So let’s be better. Let’s be braver. Let’s save the next generation by demanding a global rethink of consumerism; by rejecting apathy; by ditching our parents’ shoes.

Let’s switch from plastic back to glass. Ignore the newest reboot of our smartphones. Cut down our meat consumption. Get off the internet and start talking again. Start sharing real, informed ideas that can be debated. Let’s read, engage and vote. We can still eat and drink and party, as humans always have. But we can demand fewer useless goods in favour of quality services and experiences. Let’s hold our politicians to account and lobby hard for fairness.

All we have to do is take an interest, take an action. Believe in our ability to create better. Take the weight of the world on our shoulders, and hold it tighter and with more generosity than ever before. Because if we don’t, we will perpetuate the cycle of consumerism that has led us to the cliff edge of human survival – and there may not be a future.

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Lack of demand for decent journalism is allowing fluff to flourish

There were many reasons why I wanted to be a journalist – to write and edit all day; to share news and information; and to form part of the national discourse. But as my experience grew, I found that my main reason was to help combat ignorance and to overcome media bias, which in recent years has approached propaganda in the Western world. Journalists are in many ways a privileged bunch. The power of competition means politicians share thoughts, ideas and agendas with us to thwart the opposition. The same is true for the CEOs of corporate giants.

As a financial journalist writing on pensions, I learnt about asset management, institutional investments, deficits and surpluses. I interviewed economists and found them fascinating. Who knew the welfare of the world hinged so delicately on movements in interest rates and inflation?  To become a credible journalist, I decided to return to university to formalize my understanding of economics. I wanted to be able to challenge the experts and to understand the data.

Regressive steps

Over my two-year journey to attaining a Masters, there were two huge shake-ups to the Western world: the UK electorate’s vote to leave the EU and the US electorate’s vote for Donald Trump as POTUS. Brexit disappointed me most. Perhaps this was because I had only just returned to Ireland after seven years of working in London – one of the most metropolitan, progressive places in the world. How could a founder of globalisation so suddenly turn its back on the system? How could it lay blame for all of its failures at the heels of the EU when it had one of the biggest voices in European policymaking?

The EU helped ring-fence funding for important national industries, such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for farmers. However, farmers voted overwhelmingly for Brexit despite the CAP providing over 80% of their incomes. Although the UK was a net contributor, redistribution through the EU may have been more equitable than it will be under a Tory government. And given the UK government’s commitment to cut income support for farmers after Brexit, there are clear signs it has no regard for soft socialism. The ‘leave campaign’ claimed it would use the money saved from EU membership to shore up the health system but reneged on this promise within days after securing a victory.

Damn lies

According to ‘remainers’, Brexit only came about because of misinformation. If the electorate had been presented with a balanced debate on the merits of EU membership then the outcome may have been different. And this brings me back to why journalism – not journalists – has failed. Yes, it was the duty of journalists not to allow big businesses like JD Wetherspoons to sway public opinion on Brexit by spouting outright lies (the IMF is not an EU institution despite the pub chain’s claim). It was the job of journalists to highlight the many ways that EU funding was directed at ailing industries. It was the responsibility of journalists to use facts to challenge politicians’ empty rhetoric. But what was the point if people only read what reinforced their views?

Some believe the rise in social networks and soft news has eroded critical thinking. Algorithms are now so effectively tailored that the only content to enter our news feeds is the type of content that confirms our existing beliefs so that we are never exposed to opposing arguments. Even across our Facebook friends, the vast majority will have similar opinions or interests to ourselves – that’s often why we connected in the first place.

On top of this is the plethora of content that is desensitizing us to valuable information. We are so bogged down by stories, charts and infographics that we switch off at the sight of another article marketing a dull product or opinion. There is also the fact that the web has opened the door to so much scandal and conflicting reports that we don’t know who to believe or trust (fake news anybody?), and so we would rather rely on arguments that suit our own worldview.

Disengaged

But the bottom line is probably apathy, which I am dangerously close to acquiring myself. My voice has no sway on world affairs. If Trump wants to wage nuclear war on North Korea then there is absolutely nothing I can do. And there is nothing my community or country can do. Change used to occur on a domestic, grassroots level. But as the world has become better connected, people seem somehow less interested in change and progress. Nothing shocks us anymore so we do nothing about what should shock us.

This begs the question of whether democracy remains the most appropriate way to run a country. It is predicated on – or at least should be – the idea that people engage and are informed before casting their vote. But if we do not want to consider an issue in all of its facets, then perhaps we should not have the right to a say. Journalism was always held up as the bearer of balanced, unbiased information but in a digital era where people prefer to click on links to funny cat pictures than election manifestos, journalism serves no greater purpose than marketing.

The foundation of economic theory is supply and demand. And if we aren’t demanding high quality, professional reporting, then it won’t be supplied. Ignorance will flourish and the vulnerable will remain isolated. But perhaps that is the lure of the digital age – not having to engage beyond our own interests.

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Why Brexit will be good for Ireland’s economy

The media is awash with scare-stories on the impending doom for the Irish economy in the wake of the UK electorate’s vote to leave the EU. There are constant reminders of the €1bn of trade that is carried out between the two countries every week. But it should be remembered this sum is not the amount that Ireland earns – it is the value of mutual exchange. Trade barriers between Ireland and the UK will result in losses to both sides.

Ireland saw growth in exports to the UK decline from 12% in 2015 to just 2% last year as a result of Brexit. This was mainly due to a drop in demand for food products driven by currency pressures. Brexit saw a weakening of sterling against the euro, making euro-denominated imports more expensive. However, the UK gets one-third of its food supply from Ireland so domestic industry cannot suddenly step in to plug shortages.

Numbers don’t lie

We are repeatedly told the UK is Ireland’s main trading partner, but what does this mean? Data from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) shows the value of exports to the EU is actually far larger. And that is only accounting for goods, not services. Even breaking the bloc down by country, the value of our exports to Belgium is broadly similar to those with the UK. In March 2017, for example, the value of goods exported to the UK was €1,129m compared to €4,180m for the rest of the EU, including €1,388m for Belgium alone. These are official figures but they are rarely reported.

Irish goods exports

Now, you may be wondering how Ireland can do €1bn in trade with the UK a week but only sell goods worth €1,129m a month? As I stressed above, the €1bn represents the value of transactions between Ireland and the UK. And this includes services, which many commentators deride because they may have less value for the indigenous market than ‘hard’ goods. The €1,129m specifically refers to the value of goods Ireland sells to the UK, including food.

However, Ireland gets about a third of its total imports through the UK. Part of the explanation for this is that Ireland imports a sizeable amount of machinery and vehicles, which are brought in via Britain. So instead of avoiding transaction costs as part of the Eurozone, Ireland actually suffers a double-hit when our imports are converted from euro to sterling to euro. This is due to legacy issues whereby Ireland partnered with the UK on import deals made with other countries. Brexit should be an incentive for Ireland to negotiate its own import contracts and reduce transaction fees.

The chart below describes the shift in Ireland’s imports and exports in goods since 1973:

Irish goods exports

EU sales drive

One government agency that is taking a proactive approach to Brexit is Enterprise Ireland. It has committed to helping its members diversify away from the UK by growing export sales in the rest of the EU by 50% within three years. The agency’s CEO Julie Sinnamon said: “The fact that the growth of exports to the UK has slowed suggests that the impact of Brexit on Irish companies has already started.

“Companies cannot afford to wait until the Brexit negotiations conclude – they must act now. While diversifying from the UK might have been a desirable objective for Irish companies in the past, Brexit means that it is now an urgent imperative”.

Sinnamon’s basic point is that Ireland has been lazy about expanding its horizons – at least, perceptually. In reality, Ireland has been successful in propelling itself from a poor Western European economy into one of the wealthiest in the developed world since joining the EU in 1973.

Where we have failed to diversify is in agriculture. We have retained a post-colonial grip on the only industry the UK ever really relied on us for. Now we have an opportunity to uproot that dependence and forge opportunities across the EU and the rest of the world. And the government has already been quietly progressive in pushing Irish beef into the Chinese market.

Anyone for Apple?

The election of Emmanuel Macron as French president will raise pressure on harmonising corporate tax rates across the EU. However, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker is strongly opposed since his own country, Luxembourg, runs a similar approach to Ireland. But the corporate tax rate policy is targeted at US multinationals. And it is hard to quantify the value this has added to Ireland.

When official data showed the country’s GDP exploded by about 26% in 2015, due to corporate tax inversions, Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman described this as ‘leprechaun economics’. Countries only experience such exponential growth if they are recovering from a war or are incredibly poor. Put simply, this so-called growth in GDP did not find its way into Irish pockets, but the coffers of Apple are looking good.

The importance of the UK market has been overstated in recent decades. And there is still huge potential for Ireland to grow its opportunities across the EU, and the rest of the world, if it can get over its historical hang-up with Britain. The population of the EU is over half a billion, whereas the UK population is 65m. Why would Ireland forgo access to the biggest single market in the world to recreate a dependence on a country in which Irish citizens repeatedly complain of an 800-year struggle to break free from? The figures already show that Ireland is thriving in markets beyond the UK. Brexit will only drive this point home.

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To move on

Tiny fingers wrapped around a giant thumb

“What’s it like to be old?”

Old … old

I suppose I am

Old

“It’s sad,” I say

“Everyone you love disappears,

one by one.”

 

“Oh.

“And how does that feel?”

Little legs swing under the chair

“Like the oceans sucked into a vacuum.”

“Huh?”

“Like a hole in the heart.”

“Oh.

 

“Can you stop it?”

Yes, disappear too.

“No, but you can make it easier.”

Or harder.

“How?”

“By treasuring old photos and remembering.”

Reading old texts and emails, even letters

Reviving someone who is so readily gone.

 

“Are you going to disappear?”

Someday.

“Not for a very long time.”

“How do you know?”

I don’t.

“Because you and I have a long way to travel.”

And I would never leave you alone.

 

“But what if you do?”

“Disappear?”

Small lips tremble.

“Yes.”

“Then you will be brave and move on.”

“Move on?”

Forget about me.

“Find other ways to be happy.”

“But no one makes me as happy as you.”

“They will.”

 

Tiny grip unwraps

clutches the waist instead

head buried in the side

“I won’t ever let you go.”

Yes,

but one day you’ll have to.

 

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When liberalism becomes a modern affront to prosperity

Chitter chatter in a Dublin gallery. Leopard print dresses, frayed scarves, brogues. Wine glasses in hand. Family. Friends. Acquaintances. Opportunists, perhaps. A city ravaged only a decade ago by boom and bust, now bristles with smiles and craic. And at the centre of this revival, at least this night, is art.

In an era obsessed with economics, politics and alternative facts, so much of the western world has been swallowed up by banal arguments of destruction and decay owed to liberal thinking. As if valuing each other equally was plain wrong – an affront to growth in GDP. When news outlets are not bombarding social media feeds with celebrity junk, they are whipping up hysteria of economic and social doom. Immigrants are ‘stealing jobs, thinning the ethnic makeup of the nation’. Daring to infuse this culture with ‘the other’. Forcing so-called natives to retreat to their caves to vote for fragmentation, phobias, restrictions, in the vein hope of achieving an ever-elusive autonomy. An independence founded on exploration, conquest and genocide.

Society has been taught the price of anything, compromising the value of everything. An education is only worth what it buys. So much for freedom, liberty and fraternity. If it cannot be measured in American dollars, then it cannot be measured. And if cannot be measured, it cannot be valued, and so has no purpose in society at all.

Capitalism has generated gross prosperity across the developed world. The gap between rich and poor may be widening, but everyone has been awarded more. Yet the consequence is that society only views gains in monetary or commercial terms. To the detriment of philanthropy and in servitude to greed. And when financial chaos erupts, one of the first victims is creative arts. Reduced funding for ‘soft’ subjects that fail to please the greenback. Young people are steered towards science, business and math, taught that talents are binary – if you’re good at equations you couldn’t possibly want to paint or dance. What would be the value in that?

But take a stroll through a Dublin gallery. Discover an artist. Lose your inhibitions in brush strokes, shapes and frames. Be reminded of humanity. That eminent force that drives us to charity. Because in all the ways that a revenue-driven attitude separates us from morality, the paint, the twirl, the word, draw us right back to what is important. That is, our shared experience of the world. Regardless of our colour, religion, gender, nationality. We are a spectrum of diversity still unified by biology. This is our earth, our family, our community. And we can watch things fall apart through apathy, or we can extend a palm in a gesture of nobility.

 

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Brexit deal must be ‘inferior’ to membership to protect EU borders

Geography determines our neighbours, creating historical and cultural links too. Yet UK prime minister Theresa May seems to believe an exit from the EU will allow her country to quit the continent altogether. She also ignores that small neighbour to the west, which is firmly committed to the bloc. The UK is thus surrounded by Europe even if a large swathe of its population no longer identifies as European.

May’s attempt at setting the British identity apart from European is dishonest. Where does she think the term Anglo-Saxon came from? There are no authentic or pure identities. Europe is a melting pot of cultural idiosyncrasies and linguistic multiplicity. These are superficial differences that fail to deny the resounding truth that people are basically the same. But that is not an argument politicians want to accept since it dilutes their power.

A weak Europe

Brexit looks set to generate hostility across the continent. Leaders talk about balanced outcomes but that is impossible since a successful Brexit will spur other countries to leave. The Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat is right when he says the Brexit deal “necessarily needs to be inferior to membership”. The UK electorate may have voted leave to secure its borders but it must now accept the steps the EU is forced to take to protect its borders too.

Brexit is disappointing but the dissolution of the European bloc would be far more brutal for global stability. It would hand a Trump-led US even more power and responsibility. And while many Brexiters may think a diminished Europe would lead to the revival of the British Empire, that is a misguided and questionable ambition. Colonialism was not welcomed by its victims.

Rogue media

As Britain negotiates its exit, anti-EU rhetoric is set to soar. Media companies will use Brexit to sell ad space through news decrying the bloc as a vampire feeding off its members’ resources. There will be stories highlighting the domestic industries that have weakened under EU membership. But these stories deliberately overlook the net benefits driven by the strengthening of other domestic industries. In Britain, the Murdoch media played a huge role in Brexit by persistently publishing misleading content on the damaging effects of EU immigration. A similar phenomenon could occur across the rest of the continent as populism continues to take hold.

Brexiters should tread carefully in seeking to destabilize the EU. May argues the bloc ignored the diverse needs of its member nations. But Westminster has shown no regard for the needs of its own member nations. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain and are honest about being net beneficiaries. That goes beyond funding and grants since entry into the single market enabled these regional economies to grow. The loss of the EU market will result in larger English subsidies for the other UK nations. Brexit may simply lead to a debate on the validity of the UK since this is just another union. And a union may only be as strong as its weakest link.

 

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